People participate in a rally outside the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in support of the protesters in Cuba. Credit: Susan Walsh / AP

Two days after pro-democracy protests broke out throughout Cuba for the first time in decades, a prominent executive came to Miami to express solidarity with the Cuban people and listen to voices in the exile community.

But as Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis held a GOP-only gathering of elected officials to speak with activists in front of television cameras to declare that Florida companies should help provide internet access in Cuba, South Florida Democrats said a slew of recent events in Miami’s backyard give President Joe Biden a unique opportunity.

They want the president to deliver a pro-democracy and human rights message from Miami, where he could voice support for protesters in Cuba, call for calm in Haiti, demand free and fair elections in Nicaragua and express solidarity for Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó — stances that helped Republicans perform well during the 2020 election in South Florida.

“I really believe this is one of those moments, I put it up with the moment of ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ because I do believe we can give the hope to the people in Cuba,” said Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo, referring to President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech in front of the Berlin Wall. “It’s really about the people in Cuba who need to hear it. The words of the president of the U.S., be it Republican or Democrat, should matter.”

It’s a strategy that was often deployed by the Trump administration. The former president, vice president, and top officials like National Security Adviser John Bolton frequently traveled to South Florida to deliver messages filled with symbolism, like when Bolton stood beside Bay of Pigs veterans in 2019 to declare Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua the “troika of tyranny.”

Taddeo, a Colombian-American who represents a majority Cuban state senate district, said she wants Biden to deliver a speech from Miami expressing support for democracy throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and for the president to sit down with local activists and elected officials from both parties to learn more about Cuba, Haiti and other Latin American countries where recent events have tested the strength of democracy in the region.

No Biden plans to come to Miami

A White House spokesperson said there are no current plans for Biden to visit South Florida and pointed to the president’s statements on Cuba and Haiti in recent days, when he said the people of Haiti “deserve peace and security” and called on the “Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”

But Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones said the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and the ongoing Cuba protests allow Biden to hold high-profile events with Cuban and Haitian leaders in South Florida, noting that Republicans frequently speak with more authority on Cuba than Haiti.

“This is a prime opportunity for the president to engage with not only the Cuban leadership in South Florida but also the Haitian leadership in South Florida,” said Jones, who represents thousands of Haitians in northern Miami-Dade and southern Broward counties. “It’s clear there’s a disconnect between Cuban-Americans and the Democrats.”

Former President Donald Trump won a majority of the Cuban vote in Miami-Dade County in 2020, part of a lackluster performance from Democrats in majority Hispanic areas of South Florida that cost them seats up and down the ballot.

Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman Steve Simeonidis said Biden needs to recognize that South Florida Republicans will find ways to attack him on Cuba and Latin America policy even if they agree with his larger approach of voicing public support for protests and imposing further sanctions on countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua where opposition leaders face harassment and imprisonment.

“The fact that Ron DeSantis is pretending to lead on this issue while completely making it partisan shows that this is a political game he’s playing ahead of his reelection campaign,” Simeonidis said. “I don’t think there’s anything that Joe Biden could do on any issue that would receive any praise from South Florida Republican elected officials.”

During his remarks on Tuesday, DeSantis criticized the State Department after Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted Sunday that “peaceful protests are growing in Cuba as the Cuban people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages.”

The tweet did not match the reality of the protests, which were critical of the regime in its entirety.

“When you’re in the State Department or you’re in some of these positions, and you’re going to act like … well maybe the regime can provide a little bit of an accommodation here and an accommodation there, that’s a fundamental misreading of what’s going on in Cuba,” DeSantis said.

Another one of the Republican attendees on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, called for Chung’s firing due to the tweet. U.S. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio posted a graphic of Biden’s statement on Cuba and criticized the president for not including the words “socialism and communism” alongside “authoritarian.”

Calls for Biden to speak to Cuban and Haitian people

Jones said Biden won’t get support from local Republicans no matter what he does, so his remarks should be targeted to support Cubans and Haitians and show that Democrats can speak with authority and urgency on issues in the region.

“The people on the ground will understand that,” Jones said. “The politicians will not because they’re going to look to discredit anything the president says.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents thousands of Venezuelans and Cubans in her Broward-based district, said Biden will be able to get international buy-in for supporting the protests in Cuba that Trump, with his often erratic foreign policy decisions, was not.

“Trump coddled nearly every tyrant he met, while Biden has and will consistently stand up to any and every authoritarian regime,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There needs to be global solidarity, and President Biden will help marshal it.”

And there are also some significant policy differences between Democrats and Republicans. While Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday that U.S. military intervention was not an option in Cuba after speaking briefly with Biden, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said in a Fox News interview that airstrikes must “be explored and cannot be just simply discarded as an option.”

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who represents a Miami Gardens-based district with thousand of Haitians, said Biden doesn’t necessarily need to travel to Miami, but a nationwide, televised speech or town hall event on recent developments in the region would give Haitians, Cubans and others both in the U.S. and abroad clarity on Biden’s vision for the region.

“I would have a fireside chat to bring some calm and solace,” Wilson said. “The assassination of [Haiti’s] president is as horrible as you could get, that’s very dangerous. He can speak to the Cuban people about freedom and democracy and their right to protest.”

Taddeo, who is weighing a run for governor in 2022 against DeSantis, said she’s holding a roundtable with local officials on Wednesday, including Democratic Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, but any event with Biden will garner much more attention.

“Actions speak louder than words and again, to me, coming to Miami is an action in itself that is very strong,” Taddeo said. “We’ve got a real crisis. We need to grab that opportunity, which is why I compare it to the moment of Mr. Gorbachev.”

Story by Alex Daugherty, Miami Herald. Miami Herald reporter Bianca Padró Ocasio and McClatchy DC reporter Nathan Hart contributed to this report.