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Cuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes

Cuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes
© Bonnie Cash

The momentum that had been building around Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassBlack Caucus members lobby Biden to tap Shalanda Young for OMB head George Floyd police reform bill reintroduced in House Six ways to visualize a divided America MORE (D-Calif.) as a possible vice presidential pick for Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Biden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot MORE has come to an abrupt halt amid controversy over Cuba.

The suggestion that Bass harbored some degree of past sympathy for the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro has caused consternation among Democrats in Florida.

They worry that selecting Bass could seriously endanger Biden’s chances in the largest of the battleground states. The stakes could hardly be higher, they warn.

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Picking Bass “violates the central tenet of a vice presidential selection, which is ‘Do no harm,’” according to Florida-based pollster and Democratic strategist Fernand Amandi.

“It does not just do harm — it would very well be something that sabotages the prospects of carrying the nation’s biggest swing state in an election that must be won for the future of the republic,” he added.

Cuban Americans usually cast around 6 percent of all votes in the Sunshine State. 

They are generally hostile to Castro either because they themselves fled the island at some point after his 1959 revolution or, for younger generations, because stories of lost homes and businesses and perilous journeys into exile in the United States are embedded in the family psyche.

Independent experts agree there is real potential for damage if Bass were to become Biden’s running mate given how deeply passions run on the issue.

“She will continue to be perceived as someone who is aligned with the regime and those values,” said Hugo Acha, the director of research for the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. 

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“Every Cuban that is able to leave the island, they’re not going to tell you nice things about Fidel,” added Acha. He noted that, even for younger generations, dislike of Castro is always “seeping into the mindset of Cuban Americans.”

Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, had been rising swiftly in the field of potential vice presidents for Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Her advocates argue that she is respected by all factions of the party and would therefore be effective at energizing progressives while not striking a discordant note with the more centrist Biden.

She was also being talked up in some quarters as a better choice than Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisExclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren To unite America, Biden administration must brace for hate Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE (D-Calif.), who had been seen as a possible front-runner. 

Bass herself, however, pushed back at a Politico report that called her “the anti-Kamala Harris,” tweeting praise for the California senator and adding that “she would be an excellent VP and the same goes for anyone else on the list.”

Bass’s record on Cuba was shunted into the spotlight after The Atlantic reported about her youthful trips to the island with a left-wing group, the Venceremos Brigade, primarily in the 1970s. 

The story also noted Bass’s reaction to Castro’s 2016 death. She said at the time that his death was “a great loss to the people of Cuba” and referred to him as “Comandante en Jefe.” The phrase literally means “commander in chief” but in that context is widely seen as a compliment to Castro.

In weekend television appearances, Bass backed off her comments. She told Chuck ToddCharles (Chuck) David ToddTeachers union president: 'No perfect solution' to reopening schools Congressional Democrats say Trump acquittal was foregone conclusion Raskin: 'No regrets at all' on handling of Trump impeachment trial MORE on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that she would not use that phrase again. She said that, at the time, she talked to her Democratic colleagues in Florida and “realized that that was something that just shouldn’t have been said.”

Regarding her trips to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, Bass said that she may have been a bit naive “as any 19-year-old would be” but that she was interested in “bridging the divide between our two countries.”

But one Cuban American activist in Florida, who asked to remain anonymous, complained that Bass’s performance did not resolve the problem.

“It was cringeworthy,” the activist said. “She kept putting her foot in the mouth. She kept going, and it kept getting worse.”

Bass’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The controversy shines a light onto two broader issues.

One is the question of vetting for a vice presidential pick. Whereas contenders such as Harris and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenExclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren Minimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE (D-Mass.) have already been subject to the white-hot intensity of a presidential race, Bass and other lower-profile figures such as Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsHouse Judiciary split on how to address domestic extremism Demings on possible Senate, Florida governor run: 'I'm keeping that door open' Lawmakers remember actress Cicely Tyson MORE (D-Fla.) have not.

The other is the whole question of Castro’s Cuba. 

The late Cuban leader has now twice become an issue for Democrats in this election cycle. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike House set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package On The Money: Democrats scramble to save minimum wage hike | Personal incomes rise, inflation stays low after stimulus burst MORE (I-Vt.) faced criticism while seeking the nomination after he defended Castro’s record on improving literacy.

Even four years after his death, Castro is a nexus for tensions between the most left-wing elements of the Democratic Party and those who are laser-focused on winning Florida. 

The former tend to focus not just on the brighter parts of Castro’s record but his stubborn endurance despite decades-long efforts from Washington to remove and even kill him. 

The latter stress the human rights abuses of his regime and the electoral risks of losing support not just with Cuban Americans but with Latinos more widely in Florida by any expressions of sympathy.

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Ana NavarroAna Violeta NavarroJosé Andrés responds to Ann Coulter calling him 'some nut foreigner' Mary Trump doesn't think Trump will run in 2024 Cindy McCain when asked about joining Biden Cabinet: 'There is a role for Republicans' MORE, the Nicaragua-born erstwhile GOP strategist who has become a harsh critic of President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE, said she would support Biden “100 percent” and would vote for him “even if he nominates a root vegetable as his running mate.”

But she added that “this Karen Bass history is a potential political nightmare for those of us in Miami who support Biden. It’s something I can’t and won’t defend.” Navarro also worried that it would negatively impact Democrats in Florida congressional races and “turn the whole election into a referendum on socialism.”

Annette Taddeo, a Democratic state senator in Florida who represents a district with a large Cuban American population, said the selection of Bass would cause “tremendous harm.”

Noting polling that currently shows Biden leading in Florida, Taddeo added, “No matter what the polls say, this will be a one percent or less election. When you have such tiny margins, every little thing matters — and this is not little.”