Trump campaign sets sights on Biden's Latin America record after Sanders' exit

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A screengrab of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden appearing on Now This News to lay out his general election economic argument, Wilmington, Del., on Friday, May 8, 2020. - Brian Cahn/Zuma Press/TNS

MIAMI — Joe Biden doesn’t have Bernie Sanders for Donald Trump to kick around anymore.

Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, went largely unscathed for most the campaign on issues involving Cuba and Latin America. It was Sanders, the self-described Democratic Socialist from Vermont, who drew Republicans’ fire. But now that Sanders is out of the race, the Trump campaign is attacking Biden’s positions in the region — an onslaught that could hurt Biden’s campaign while helping Trump in Florida among Hispanic voters.

“I think Joe Biden, he’s going to have a problem with a lot of people, especially Cuban Americans, because he wants to go back to Obama-era Cuba policy,” Lara Trump, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said Tuesday on a call with reporters. “He wants to support the Cuban regime, which right now is propping up Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. People in Venezuela are starving to death.”

Trump’s campaign is planning to release ads blasting Biden’s policies on Cuba and Latin America, according to the news website Axios. The Trump campaign didn’t address questions about the report Tuesday. But Axios reported that the ads will focus on an interview Biden gave late last month to Miami Herald news partner WFOR-TV.

During the interview, Biden said he would restore the Obama administration’s Cuba policies that opened diplomatic ties and loosened travel and business restrictions — policies Trump reversed after taking office in 2017.

Biden, who as vice president acted as a point man for the Obama administration in Central and South America from 2008 through 2016, made his intentions on Cuba clear weeks earlier. In an American Quarterly interview published in early March, Biden said he would push for free and fair elections in Venezuela and “reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

Still, it was Biden’s Miami interview — granted after Sanders’ exit from the presidential race — that generated criticism from Republicans, who slammed the former vice president as insensitive to human rights violations by Cuba’s government and the country’s ongoing support for the dictatorship of Venezuela’s Maduro.

“It’s just a slap in the face for those Cubans who had to leave their homeland, flee persecution and come to the U.S. to build their lives and find freedom,” Mercedes Schlapp, a Cuban American senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said in an interview Tuesday.

Biden’s campaign said Tuesday that it’s Trump’s Latin America policies that have failed.

“While President Trump may want to play tough, his policies toward Cuba have done nothing to advance democracy and human rights on the island and instead, have come at the expense of the Cuban people by limiting travel and contact between families and loved ones,” a spokesman told the Herald. “As president, (former) Vice President Biden will reverse Trump’s failed policies, end the needless separation of Cuban families, and instead pursue a policy to advance U.S. interests and empower the Cuban people — especially the millions of Cubans who have suffered for decades.”

Cuba and Latin America policy don’t appear to be top of mind for the Biden campaign, which on Monday began running a social media ad in Florida and other battleground states blasting Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. But Republicans’ focus on Biden’s Latin America platform comes as the former vice president leads Trump among Hispanic voters by smaller margins than Hillary Clinton enjoyed in 2016 when she trounced Trump among Latinos but still lost Florida.

April polls found Biden, at best, 18 points ahead of Trump with Hispanic voters in Florida — only about half the edge Clinton enjoyed on Election Day 2016, according to a CNN exit poll at the time.

That’s made some Democrats and Latino activists nervous about the campaign’s efforts to win over Hispanic voters in a state where campaigning is expensive and the demographics cover a wide range of nationalities.

“We now have case study after case study that has proven empirically that for Democrats to have any chance of carrying Florida in a presidential election they must have historic support and historic turnout” among Hispanic voters, said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster whose firm, Bendixen & Amandi International, produced Spanish-language ads for the 2012 Obama campaign. “If they’re unable to do that, there’s no path for them to carry Florida.”

But the attacks likely serve a dual purpose, said Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert. He said attacking Biden over Cuba is probably a strategy for the Trump campaign to boost turnout among Cuban American voters, who — unlike most Hispanic voters — lean Republican.

Trump maintains a far more solid footing among Hispanic voters than he had during his 2016 campaign, when a Florida International University poll found him edging Democratic nominee Clinton by just 4 points among Cuban-Americans. And in 2020, Trump is courting voters who immigrated to Florida from Venezuela, with its continuing turmoil, and Nicaragua, which has also endured tumult under Daniel Ortega.

“It’s going to mobilize Cuban voters over the age of 65,” said Ulvert, whose family is from Nicaragua. “Both parties will tell you they aren’t part of the vote base of any Democrat.”

At the same time, in an effort Ulvert believes is coordinated, some Republican members of the Miami-Dade county commission have continued to link issues around the coronavirus outbreak in South Florida to Cuba. Last week, while voting against requiring paid sick leave for airport security workers and contractors, Cuban American Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said the policies were the kind pursued by “Nicaragua, and Venezuela and in Cuba.”

Meanwhile, there’s evidence that the trade embargo put in place decades ago by President John F. Kennedy is growing in popularity after previously falling out of favor among Cuban voters. A 2018 FIU poll showed that Cuban Americans were roughly split on the embargo two years after being against it by a 2-to-1 margin.

“When (rapprochement) happened, it was pretty widely supported,” said Carlos Odio, a former Obama administration White House aide who now runs the Latino issues research firm EquisLabs. “There has since been an indication it’s been turned now into a bludgeon against Democrats.”

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