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Fidel Blindness Is Florida Blindness – And It's The Reason Biden Won't Pick Bass

Alex Brandon
California Congresswoman Karen Bass during presidential impeachment hearings last December.


California Congresswoman Karen Bass offers a spot-on reason Americans should object to President Trump sending shadowy federal agents to break up racial justice protests.

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“You have no idea who they are,” Bass told the Wall Street Journal last week. “Somebody grabs you off the street and pulls you into an unmarked car? This is something from another country…very un-American, very frightening.”

Problem is, Bass’ remark also unwittingly offered a spot-on reason it will be hard for Joe Biden to pick her as his Democratic running mate.

The constitutionally questionable arrests Bass refers to do smack of the sort of police-state tactics we’re used to seeing in other countries.

Like Cuba.

And that’s the problem I’m talking about.

READ MORE: Bernie Sanders' Take on Castro as Clueless as Right-Wingers' Take on Pinochet

By pointing out Trump’s flirtations with autocracy, Bass exposes her own dalliance with hypocrisy. Bass has a long habit of ignoring communist Cuba’s frightening habit of, well, sending shadowy security agents out to grab dissidents off the street and pull them into unmarked cars.

Like a lot of American liberals, Bass has a nagging blind spot when it comes to Cuba – a condition that’s better known in U.S. presidential politics as Florida blindness.

By pointing out Trump's flirtation with autocracy in Portland, Bass exposes her own dalliance with hypocrisy in Havana.

As a college student in the 1970s, Bass was a volunteer in the Venceremos Brigade. (!Venceremos! is the Cuban communist slogan “We will prevail!”) Its members traveled to the island to cut both sugar cane and their revolutionary teeth.

Spending your summer helping a developing country, especially one whose logo bears Che Guevara’s romantic mug, is hardly uncommon among idealistic U.S. youth. But it’s hard to believe someone as intelligent as Bass wouldn’t have come away from her Brigade days with a smarter appreciation of the dictatorial oppression that undergirded the late Fidel Castro’s regime.

Or that she wouldn’t have at least appreciated it by the time Castro died in 2016. Instead, Bass eulogized Fidel by asserting, “The passing of the comandante en jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba.”


Let’s be clear: Bass is not the dastardly comunista or even socialista Miami’s Cuban-exile chorus wants the rest of the country to think she is. She’s a widely admired and proudly patriotic U.S. public servant. But since she’s on Biden’s V.P. selection short list, she’s now having to fend off accusations that she’s an F.F. – Friend of Fidel.

Whether or not it’s fair, that image is extraordinarily hard to wash off in Florida, where Cubans are still the straw that swings the critical Latino vote. And because winning Florida may be critical for Biden – a new NPR map shows him with a big majority of 297 electoral votes if he takes the Sunshine State, but less than a majority if he doesn’t – having Bass on the ticket makes less sense.

Credit Charles Tasnadi / AP
Fidel Castro in Havana in 1985

But liberals like Bass – and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose leading bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was derailed this year in no small part by his own expressions of admiration for Fidel – should understand this is about more than just Florida electoral math. It’s also about the credibility of two key causes they champion.

One is U.S. Cuba policy – namely, former President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba, which Trump has significantly rolled back. Liberals too often forget that U.S. engagement with Cuba doesn’t mean U.S. approval of its regime. It’s instead a more realistic means of re-democratizing Cuba after a failed half century of isolating the island. Biden says he wants to revive Obama’s policy – but picking Bass as his V.P. risks raising fears that engagement will morph into appeasement.

The other, and more important, is U.S. racial justice. A privileged white man like me has no right whatsoever to question the venerated civil rights stature of Bass, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus. Nor would I. Still, I’ll admit I worry that a big aim of civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter – dismantling racist police brutality in the U.S. – can be undermined when a leader like Bass seems to downplay totalitarian police brutality in Cuba.

Her double standard on Havana is just the sort of thing Trump loves to mention when he’s defending his dangerous standard in Portland. In the end, giving a pass to Fidel helps gift a pass to Donald.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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