Fabiola Santiago: Trump, Pence promise a 'Cuba libre' in Miami, but only Obama outsmarted the Castros

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President Donald Trump arrives at Miami International Airport and disembarks from Air Force One on the way to campaign events in Miami on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. - Orit Ben-Ezzer/Zuma Press/TNS

Republicans know the drill well.

It’s not a proper presidential election without the standard call in Miami for a free Cuba — and the Trump campaign isn’t taking any chances in must-win Florida.

The traditional cafecito stop at Versailles with people swarming a candidate may be lost to the contagious coronavirus, but words that stir a people’s yearning for the homeland left behind are still the election prop of choice.

Words don’t cost a thing, except maybe to the isolated and repressed people in Cuba.

And so, on Thursday, both President Donald Trump, said to be recovered from COVID, and Vice President Pence descended on Miami.

Surprisingly, there was not a single Cuba question directed at Trump during the NBC town hall in downtown Miami that replaced his debate with Democrat Joe Biden. But in an appearance earlier in the day, Pence more than made up for it.

He played to the stereotype of what Cuban American voters want to hear, right on cue.

The vice president is no Ronald Reagan, king of the “Cuba si, Castro no.”

Reagan had glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union giving him a measure of credibility. It was easy to applaud and hope.

Pence only had Trump to piggyback on.

Four years of Trump’s economic sanctions on Cuba later, the president hasn’t moved the needle toward democratization, no matter how many times he visits Miami and sings the praises of the Bay of Pigs veterans.

These days, not only are Cubans being even more harshly repressed, but the flourishing American influence of the Obama years has been lost.

The players who have benefited? Russia, China, Iran.


Yet, Pence pulled the Obama engagement policy card out of his pocket and, standing at the site of a memorial to victims of the Castro regime, delivered untruths, cool as the weather in Indiana.

“When the last president visited Cuba, he literally stood hand in hand with Raul Castro,” Pence said, surrounded by people wearing red Cubans for Trump T-shirts and a conservative Colombian who brought Pence a traditional hat, a sombrero vueltiau, and temporarily stole the media’s attention.

“Four more years of Donald Trump in the White House means que viva Cuba libre,” he added.


Props to the person who coached the vice president on proper grammar when melding English and Spanish.

But the content of what he said is election-time spin and fabrication.

President Barack Obama has been the only American president to outsmart the Castros.

He invaded Cuba without firing a single shot or sending in the Marines, only cruise ships.

He brought on his historic visit to the island pesky, persistent American journalists who questioned Raul Castro in a widely televised press conference the likes of which no one had seen before.

The questions about political prisoners in Cuban jails and repression of dissidents embarrassed the Cuban leader and put him on the spot. He was visibly angry. And when he tried to save face and grabbed Obama’s arm in an awkward show of unmerited triumph, Obama let his hand dangle.

It became one of the most iconic photos of the visit — and a foreshadowing of what came next.

Obama delivered one of the best speeches of his presidency calling for the democratization of Cuba with extraordinary agility — meaningful, utilitarian words spoken not in Miami to ingratiate voters but live from Gran Teatro de la Habana on national Cuban television.

The Castro brothers were livid.

To the Cubans who matter most — those who remain on the island and those in Miami with family ties — Obama filled hearts with hope of reconciliation.

No, Obama didn’t stand with Castro, as Pence claimed.

He stood with the separated people on two shores — and he led a high-stakes diplomatic effort to return American democratic influence to the island.

It wasn’t an election gimmick. It was statesmanship at work.


Trump and Pence, on the other hand, are only after the Cuban American and, more broadly, Hispanic vote.

“President Donald Trump will only stand hand in hand with you,” Pence assured the adoring crowd.

But the Trump Organization has been trying to do business with Cuba since 1997. Trump only turned to courting Cuban exiles when that didn’t work out. And still, even while paying anti-Castro lip service to Cuban Americans, he continued trying to break into the Cuba’s real estate market in violation of the U.S. embargo.

“¡Cuatro años más!” Pence called out in Spanish to the crowd over and over as he promised to restore democracy to Venezuela, which Trump hasn’t accomplished either, and deliver free and fair elections in Nicaragua.

Four more years of Trump in the White House means nothing to the Cuban government, one of the longest lasting dictatorships in the world. Cuban leaders have already shown they can withstand the pressure.

After all, with Trump, the hard line in Cuba got what it wanted from the day they heard Obama speak in Havana: those democracy-peddling Americans out of Cuba.

Trump and Pence promise Miami a free Cuba they haven’t delivered — and can’t.



Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


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