MIAMI – Until recently, Robert Lewis had never heard of Karen Bass, the California congresswoman in contention to be Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's running mate. But the recent college graduate had long heard stories from his grandfather recounting the days of oppression in Cuba under Fidel Castro.
When he learned that Bass had called Castro's death “a great loss,” the 22-year-old considered it a disregard for the plight of those who suffered at the hands of Castro's government.
“Through the stories from my grandparents and because of my upbringing, it makes me feel like their experiences were my own," said Lewis, a political independent who is still weighing his choices ahead of the presidential election.
Lewis' reaction is a blow to Democrats who in recent years have tried to pull young Cubans in Florida away from the Republican Party, the political home of many of their parents and grandparents. The next generation is less focused on the past and open to change, Democrats argued, as President Barack Obama embraced engagement with Cuba and in 2014 declared he would "bury the last remnant of the Cold War."
But Bass' comments provide fresh evidence to the contrary. While polling shows young Cubans in Florida open to new policies, they also remain skeptical of the Cuban government and, experts note, wary of politicians who aren't. Even for some young Cubans, the congresswoman's remarks are troubling — and a reminder that Castro still stirs strong passions.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” said one poster on a Facebook community called “Cubanos Con Biden," a 6,000-member group partially run by the Biden campaign. It has been dominated by discussion about Bass in recent days.
Hispanics account for one-fourth of the population of Florida, a critical presidential battleground, and 1 in every 5 of its 13.8 million voters. The Pew Research Center estimates that nearly a third of Florida’s Hispanic voters have roots in Cuba.
Republicans have long dominated with those voters, in part by taking a hard line on maintaining the embargo meant to isolate the island and its now-deceased leader. But shifting views on the embargo have given Democrats hope.
A 2018 poll of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County showed a massive generational and age divide in the county in their views about U.S.-Cuba policy. The poll by Florida International University poll found that among those who migrated to the United States before 1980, about 3 in 5 opposed establishment of diplomatic relations, while about 70% of those who were born in the U.S. or arrived after 1980 were in favor.
But the same poll found evidence that Trump, who opposes the Obama-era policies, may have hardened views. Support for the embargo has grown among those who migrated before 1980 with 68% in support in 2018, up from 57% in 2016.
That's not necessarily evidence that Bass and her comments would hurt Biden’s chances in Florida, noted Guillermo Grenier, the poll's lead researcher. Rather, he said, it's likely that many Cuban American voters have already solidified around Trump.
“The folks who are pro-Trump are going to stay pro-Trump. There is a small number of undecided, but if they are swayed by the selection of Bass as VP, they really weren’t undecided,” he said.
Still, Democrats are clearly worried about the risks.
Bass has walked back her remarks made after Castro’s death in 2016 — that “the passing of Comandante en Jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba."
No offense was intended, Bass said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“Lesson learned. Wouldn't do that again,” she said. “Talked immediately to my colleagues from Florida and realized that that was something that just shouldn’t have been said.”
She didn't consider herself a Castro sympathizer, she added. “My position on Cuba," she said, "is really no different than the position of the Obama administration.”
The apology wasn't helped by trips Bass took to Cuba as a member of Congress to learn about the country’s health care system and as a young activist in the 1970s.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban American, has called the congresswoman a “Castro sympathizer."
Bass is hardly the only Democrat to be hit with the charge. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., earlier this year came under fire for a television interview in which he lauded Castro for a literacy program and asserted that it was “unfair to simply say everything is bad” in Cuba. Sanders lost Florida by nearly 40 percentage points in the Democratic presidential primary in March, with Biden garnering 62% of the vote.
Such comments are not just a problem with Cuban Americans, said Fernand Amandi, a Miami political consultant who is a Democrat and is of Cuban descent.
Bass' comments could peel away support among other Latinos, especially those from Nicaragua and Venezuela, who fled the oppressive conditions of their native countries.
“The litmus test in Florida is: Do no harm, because it’s a state that is always decided by the thinnest of margins. Just taking off the table any segment of the Florida electorate could prove fatal,” he said.
If chosen as Biden’s running mate, Bass could become the first woman and first African American elected vice president. She is on a short list of women, including U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando, who are said to be finalists for the job.
For some Democrats of Cuban descent, Bass' past remarks aren't enough to determine their vote.
“I would still support Biden regardless of who he chooses as the VP,” said Adam Schwartzbaum, a 35-year-old attorney in Coral Gables whose father and grandparents arrived in Miami after the Cuban revolution in 1961.
“We celebrated when Fidel Castro passed away. We still see him as a dictator who really impoverished the island," he said. But his real worry is that Republicans would use Bass' remarks as distraction from what he called the more important goal of electing Biden.
“Right now the focus is to move Trump out of office," he said.
Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Fla. Associated Press writer Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.