FARC Fight: Biden learns — again — that South Florida is a Latin America policy minefield
Biden's decision to remove Colombian guerrillas from the U.S. terrorist list sparks a new disinformation spree in Florida — and more Latino lessons for Democrats.
In the past two weeks, the Biden administration has learned a tough lesson about making Latin America policy:
Ignore South Florida at your political peril.
Juan Gonzalez — senior western hemisphere director for the National Security Council and President Biden’s top Latin America adviser — told WLRN as much last week after his damage-control visit to Miami.
“We are not engaging enough," Gonzalez said. "We should be out in Florida, because there is widespread disinformation [there] that paints the Administration’s policies in a frame of socialism and communism, which is pretty ridiculous.”
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Gonzalez is referring to the administration's recent decision — part of a process actually begun under President Trump — to remove the Colombian guerrilla armyknown as the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) from the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
Those Marxist rebels signed a peace deal five years ago, ending a half century of civil war in Colombia. Most FARC combatants are now civilians; the FARC itself is now a political party.
Striking the group from the terrorist rolls allows Washington to work legally with former FARC members on projects like improving education or infrastructure in Colombia‚ which matters to the success of the country's peace plan.
"If you actually want to advance policies that support our longstanding commitment to Colombia," said Gonzalez, himself a Colombian-American, "you have to have to respond to what the [U.S. terrorist list] law requires."
In the process, the Biden administration put on the terrorist list two FARC splinter groups — FARC-EP and Segunda Marquetalia — who refuse to honor the peace plan and still commit violence.
But that last part was conveniently left out by whomever leaked the FARC de-listing plan last month after it had been submitted to Congress.
"When it was leaked, only the FARC de-listing part was leaked,” Gonzalez said.
Many Colombian expats in South Florida were victimized by FARC violence during the civil war, and most of them opposed the 2016 peace agreement. The only leaked de-listing information they heard — especially on conservative Spanish-language media — was disinformation: namely, that Biden was taking not just the disarmed, demobilized FARC off the terrorist list but also the still-violent FARC splinter groups.
At the same time, expats also often heard the oft-repeated lie in the South Florida Latino community that Biden is a "socialista."
Gonzalez says he wasn't surprised by the initial reaction to what was leaked.
“Obviously the Colombia-American community, as I would have, had a very emotional, negative response,” he said.
That included Colombian-American state Senator Annette Taddeo of Miami — who hopes to be Florida's next governor. Like Biden, she's a Democrat. But she's bucking her own party on this issue in large part because in the 1980s the FARC kidnapped her father in rural Colombia. (Her father later escaped.)
“This was personal. This was hurtful. This was unacceptable," said Taddeo, who blasted the administration on social media after hearing that initial, incomplete leak.
"What sort of message are we as the United States sending to people who have suffered so much?”
Seeing the uproar, Gonzalez flew down to Miami last Monday with the complete message. He barnstormed Spanish-language media, stressing that the FARC splinter groups still committing violence would remain on the U.S. terrorist list; that even former guerrillas wanted in the U.S. for narco-trafficking and other crimes would remain under indictment.
"We had to confront this political spin that we were trying to somehow turn the page on the suffering caused by the FARC," said Gonzalez. "President Biden was a key supporter [as a U.S. Senator] of the  Plan Colombia" that helped the military there finally beat back the FARC.
Those arguments did not sway Taddeo, who says she still objects to any FARC de-listing, especially since she feels the peace deal isn't doing enough to punish FARC atrocities.
Taddeo's critics say she’s pandering to the conservative voters in Florida she'll need next November if she wins the Democratic gubernatorial primary. She adamantly denies that.
Two other Florida Democrats, Orlando Congresswoman Val Demings, who is challenging Republican Senator Marco Rubio for his seat, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Danielle Levine Cava, whose bailiwick contains the lion's share of Florida Colombians, followed Taddeo's lead and called Biden's move an affront to Colombian-Americans.
We had to confront this political spin that we were trying to somehow turn the page on the suffering caused by the FARC. President Biden was a key supporter of the plan that beat back the FARC.Juan Gonzalez
But for many other Colombians here, Gonzalez’s visit worked.
“When I heard the reasons and what it is this administration is doing, my fears calmed down,” said Myriam Campo Goldman, a Colombian-American psychologist in Pompano Beach who heads a nonprofit for at-risk youths, called the Harmony Development Center.
Campo Goldman too was alarmed at what she first heard — in a social media message from Taddeo — about the FARC de-listing. She and her family emigrated here 30 years ago after her brother-in-law, a Conservative Party leader in Cali, Colombia, was assassinated with FARC involvement.
"We were constantly receiving threats from the FARC," she recalled.
Politically, Campo Goldman is a registered independent voter. After hearing Gonzalez at a meeting with Colombian expats at Florida International University last week, she now feels de-listing the FARC is the right move for Colombia's future.
“I think it benefits peace and growth in Colombia," she said.
"So I started calling my people in Colombia, because they were upset too. I said, ‘No, listen, this is what it is — and it makes a lot of sense,'" Campo Goldman said.
What makes less sense to political experts is why the Biden administration let itself get caught in this situation in the first place. They say it should have learned a lesson from last year’s election, when most Florida Colombians — the nation's largest Colombian expat bloc — voted for Donald Trump. To wit:
Most Florida Latinos are hostile to anything left-wing in Latin America. So they tend to be wary of any Democratic administration’s policy in Latin America.
FIU political science professor Eduardo Gamarra, a Colombia expert, also attended Gonzalez's meeting with Colombian expats. While he was impressed that the Biden adviser was open about the fact that the White House needs to engage Florida's Latino diaspora more robustly, he says the administration should have consulted the Colombian community here about a decision as sensitive as the FARC de-listing much sooner.
"The administration should have called and said, 'Look, we want to give you a heads up: we've made this decision and these are the talking points and we'd like to hear what you think about how we should proceed,'" Gamarra said.
"That's communications 101. Engaging the Latino community here is no longer just about drinking a cafecito at Versailles. It's far more complex than it was a generation ago, and the Republicans seem to have learned that a long time ago," he said.
Gamarra adds he hopes the administration and Beltway Democrats haven't de-prioritized Florida Latinos just because "they might have concluded Florida is an un-winnable red state now — one Biden didn't even need to defeat Trump last year."
Colombian-American Democrats, like communications strategist Evelyn Perez-Verdia of Fort Lauderdale, agree with that sentiment.
"It's moderate Latino Democrats like us here who are on the front line confronting the alt-right disinformation that's bombarding Latinos all over the country today — the lies about Biden being some Venezuela-style socialist," Perez-Verdia said.
Perez-Verdia also remembers being threatened by the FARC as a girl growing up in rural Colombia — to the point that her parents, who worked with impoverished deaf people in the countryside, decided to dye her blonde hair dark brown to make her less vulnerable to the guerrillas' rampant ransom kidnapping.
But, like Campo Goldman, she insists Colombian expats shouldn't let memories like that obstruct the country's peace project.
"De-listing the demobilized FARC is the right thing to do," said Perez-Verdia, "and on the eve of 2022 [elections] we have to makes sure our community gets the truth."
The de-mobilized FARC was officially removed from the U.S. terrorist list on November 30.