Widespread protests across Cuba this past weekend revealed significant political challenges President Biden faces as he seeks to support the demonstrations without hurting their cause — or his own political interest.
Biden says the United States stands with the thousands of Cubans who have taken to the streets to protest food shortages and high prices amid the pandemic.
"The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime," Biden said at the start of an unrelated White House meeting on Monday. "I don't think we've seen anything like this protest in a long, long time — if ever."
But in Florida, which has the country's largest Cuban American population — a crucial voting bloc in the nation's largest swing state — many want more than words of support. Some want the U.S. to lead an international intervention against the communist regime.
"The Biden administration has itself a political gift from the gods," said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Florida who has encouraged Biden to visit Miami and speak directly with the Cuban American community there.
If handled correctly, Amandi said Biden can make great strides in erasing a lingering perception about the Democratic Party being a bunch of socialists.
"But if he takes a more passive wait-and-see, behind-the-scenes approach," Amandi added, "I think it'll be both a policy and a political opportunity lost that may cement some of the negative impressions around the Democratic Party."
In Miami, hundreds of Cuban Americans rushed to Little Havana on Sunday in solidarity and to cheer what some saw as the beginning of the end of the communist leadership. The city's mayor, Francis Suarez, called on Biden to take action.
"This has been happening for far too long with the international community ignoring what's happening in Cuba," Suarez said. "The United States and the international community must do something now."
Biden lost Florida in the 2020 election
Things didn't go well for Biden in Florida during the 2020 election. He lost the state to former President Donald Trump, who was helped out by significant gains in Miami-Dade County — a Democratic stronghold where most residents are Hispanic.
For years, Cuban American voters in Florida had been trending more Democratic, but in recent years the voting bloc had increased its support for Trump.
The former president and his administration were a constant presence in South Florida, but political watchers say his supporters also ran a successful misinformation campaign tying Biden to oppressive socialist regimes in Latin America.
This week, Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did not waste time criticizing Biden for failing to describe the Cuban government as "socialist and communist."
He called on Biden to take concrete steps to help protesters, including setting up free satellite internet access and working with allies in the region and the European Union to "to coordinate a strong rejection and condemnation of the repressive actions taken by the Communist regime against the unarmed people of Cuba."
"We should make clear nothing [from Trump-era policies] is going to change," Rubio said Monday on the Senate floor. "There's not going to be any sanctions changed as a result of this — on the contrary. I hope the Biden administration will now announce they have finished their review of Cuba policy and everything that's in place will stay in place."
After signaling on the campaign trail that he would reverse Trump policies that he said had harmed the Cuban people, Biden has yet to follow through on those promises. That's in contrast to many other moves Biden has taken to reverse Trump policies.
The White House has taken a cautious approach to Cuba policy
The Biden administration has been reviewing its approach to Cuba, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was continuing to assess the protests to see where the administration could be most helpful.
In another sign of the White House's cautious approach to undoing Trump's policies on Cuba, the United States last month opposed a United Nations resolution condemning the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
It was a closely watched vote because the United States abstained on the resolution during the last year of the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.
Benjamin Gedan, who led Latin America policy in the Obama White House, says that's because Biden has been wary of upsetting Cuban hard-liners in South Florida, who are seen as having played such a crucial role in the 2020 election.
"So far, the administration has really been walking on eggshells when it comes to Cuba policy," Gedan said.
Those same hard-liners now "see blood in the water," Gedan says, and want Biden to push even harder while the Cuban regime appears vulnerable.
But he says the administration must also be careful that its actions don't hurt the effort.
Indeed, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel is already blaming the protests on the U.S. embargo and a social media campaign against the Cuban government.
Gedan said the challenge for the president is striking the right balance between finding some productive level of political engagement, but to do so without creating additional opportunities for Biden's opponents to criticize him.
"And unfortunately, the perceived muted response so far from the Biden White House has fueled that disinformation campaign," Gedan said, "and leads to the caricaturing of the Biden administration as somehow not aggressively defending human rights and democracy."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Biden says the United States stands with the thousands of Cubans who have taken to the streets in the largest demonstrations against the communist government in decades. The protests have also revealed political challenges that President Biden faces with Cuban Americans in Florida, and that's a crucial voting bloc in the nation's largest swing state. They are demanding much more than words of support. Here with more, NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: During the rare protest, demonstrators along Havana's famed Malecon promenade and across the island complained of food shortages and the worsening economic situation.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).
ORDOÑEZ: They chanted for freedom and called for President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down. In Miami, thousands of Cuban Americans rushed to Little Havana in solidarity and cheered what some saw as the beginning of the end of communist leadership. President Biden applauded what he called the Cuban people's clarion call for freedom.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. And I don't think we've seen anything like this protest in a long, long time if, quite frankly, ever.
ORDOÑEZ: Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Florida, said the president of the United States can play an extraordinarily important role in determining what happens next.
FERNAND AMANDI: For President Biden, this has the potential to be a political gift from the gods because he has the opportunity, through his actions as the leader of the United States and the free world, to play a role in championing the efforts.
ORDOÑEZ: Play it right, Amandi says, and Biden can also help erase lingering perceptions from a misinformation campaign about Biden and the Democrats being a bunch of socialists.
AMANDI: There are going to be political rewards to be reaped if Cuba does transition to a free democracy. And whoever the president of the United States is at that time, the political rewards could be profound.
ORDOÑEZ: Biden could certainly use help with the community. Things didn't go well for him last year in Florida after he promised to reverse some of former President Donald Trump's Cuba policies and go back to the Obama-Biden administration policy of engagement. He lost the state to Trump, who was helped out by significant gains in Miami-Dade County, a Democratic stronghold where nearly 70% of residents are Hispanic.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARCO RUBIO: We should make clear - nothing's going to change. There's not going to be any sanctions changed as a result of this.
ORDOÑEZ: That's Florida Senator Marco Rubio pressing Biden to keep policies Trump put in place, including travel restrictions and re-adding Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Rubio also called on Biden to do more to help the protesters by setting up satellite internet and rallying allies to condemn repressive actions of the communist government.
BENJAMIN GEDAN: What is being demanded in southern Florida is that the Biden administration embrace the agenda of the protesters and demand the immediate regime change in Havana.
ORDOÑEZ: Benjamin Gedan led Latin America policy in the Obama White House. He says the Biden administration must be careful not to do too much cheerleading, which could give the Cuban regime an excuse to crack down on protesters or delegitimize their efforts by portraying them as American stooges.
GEDAN: What you're seeing in the very careful response from the Biden White House is a desire not to undermine this promising protest movement.
ORDOÑEZ: But he and others see a risk in being too careful. Not doing enough could spoil an opportunity to repair Biden's reputation with Cuban American voters.
Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "OTTOMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.