Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat, wants Floridians to know that in her third congressional term, she‘s finally taking a stand in the decadeslong struggle for Cuban liberty. Since announcing her Senate candidacy 16 months ago, Ms. Demings has conveniently managed to co-sponsor legislation denouncing Cuba‘s military dictatorship, a tectonic shift from her record of virtual silence on a critical Florida issue she should have embraced when she was elected six years ago.
Ms. Demings‘ lack of conviction came to light last year when the Miami Herald asked her if she supported the embargo after a hearing on the July 11 protests in Cuba. The Florida congresswoman declined to take a position but quickly corrected herself in a statement hours later that said she supported sanctions.
That same month, Ms. Demings co-sponsored a resolution expressing solidarity with the Cuban people alongside Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who actually champions the Cuban cause, and attached her name to a bill this year supporting the Cuban Reunification Parole Program Act. She also highlighted Cuba in a press release about a global internet freedom bill that she co-sponsored but makes no mention of the country.
It’s no surprise that Ms. Demings is suddenly trying to align herself with the cause of Cuban democracy. She can’t win Florida without the Cuban vote, and she knows it.
Of the more than 2 million Hispanics with Cuban ancestry living in the U.S. today, 66% live in Florida, according to the Pew Research Center. While there is an apparent conservative shift among Latinos nationwide, it is even more apparent here in South Florida, where Cuban exile groups organize caravans and campaigns calling upon all Miamians to join their crusade against communism. Their efforts have especially appealed to Venezuelan and Nicaraguan refugees who also fled Marxist dictatorships. Organizations such as Directorio Democratico Cubano, the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, Inspire America and Cuba Decide have organized events drawing tens of thousands.
The impact of these efforts became evident in 2020 when Joe Biden won Miami-Dade County by only 7 points, a 23-point drop from Hillary Clinton’s 30-point lead in 2016. Joe Garcia, former chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, called Republican gains in Miami a “bloodbath.” While Ms. Demings has managed to finally get a few Cuba-related Google hits, she lacks Sen. Marco Rubio’s earnest history of crusading for Cuban freedom.
In his first year in the Senate, Mr. Rubio became an outspoken advocate of sanctions against the Cuban regime and successfully pressured the Obama administration to withdraw an ambassadorial nomination of Jonathan D. Farrar, a former chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana who Mr. Rubio felt was not assertive enough with the regime. In 2012, he met Cuban exiles at a pro-democracy summit in Colombia and introduced Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention by sharing a story about his grandfather’s days on the island.
In 2013, Mr. Rubio chastised celebrities for island tourism, called on President Barack Obama to clarify his enforcement policy on travel to Cuba and worked with Democrats to meet with dissidents. The following year, Mr. Rubio hammered Mr. Obama for giving diplomatic legitimacy to Cuba, called attention to Russia’s presence on the island and criticized Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s support of reopening U.S. relations with Havana. In 2015, he urged Secretary of State John Kerry to continue supporting Cuban dissidents amid the U.S. Embassy’s reopening on the island.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Rubio used his platform to condemn Mr. Obama’s easing of sanctions, and in 2017, he became the central figure influencing the Trump administration’s Cuba policy. In 2018, Mr. Rubio held Senate hearings to examine the purported sonic attacks aimed at U.S. diplomatic personnel in Havana, and President Donald Trump packed his foreign policy team with Rubio-supported regime critics. The following year, Mr. Rubio called for a federal investigation into Mexico’s trafficking of doctors and chastised Cuba for jailing parents over home schooling.
Mr. Rubio’s influence in the Trump administration was fully realized in 2020 when the president sanctioned GAESA entities with ties to Cuba’s military, banned U.S. citizens from staying at regime-owned hotels and prohibited them from returning home with Cuban cigars and rum. In 2021, the president finally designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and proposed legislation to support victims of Havana syndrome.
These aforementioned acts represent a fraction of Mr. Rubio’s anti-regime efforts. Unlike Ms. Demings, whose interest arose after she announced her candidacy, Mr. Rubio’s commitment to the Cuban people is long-standing and genuine. The Cuban regime remains a threat to our national security, and the island’s circumstances affect South Florida as countless exiles continue to seek refuge here. Cuba’s future is tied to Florida’s future, and we deserve a senator who understands the complexity of those connections and the significance they have to our state and nation.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the point drop from 2016 to 2020 in Miami-Dade County. Joe Biden’s 2020 decline was 23 points down from Hillary Clinton in 2016.
• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a South Florida resident who served in the Trump administration at the Miami-based U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting, 2017-2021. He now serves on the editorial board of The Washington Times.