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Elián and Bernie

February 25, 2020

elian gonzalez

Sometime seemingly small events have major consequences.

On November 21, 1999, a divorced young mother named Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez fled Cuba in a small boat, along with her almost 6-year-old son Elián Gonzalez and twelve other people. The boat’s engine failed, and it drifted in the Gulf Stream for days, until it was sighted by an American fishing boat. By then, 10 of those on the boat had died, including Elizabeth, but Elián survived. INS released Elián to his paternal great-uncle, Lázaro González, in Miami. He and other relatives in Miami’s Cuban community were determined to keep him in the US. Thus began a protracted custody battle between Elián’s father, back in Cuba, and his Miami relatives, who enlisted the support of the South Florida Cuban community and their political connections in Florida and Washington, DC.

The courts eventually ruled in favor of Elián’s father, but the decision was bitterly denounced in Miami. Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, ordered Elián’s return and set a deadline of April 13, 2000, but the Miami relatives defied the order. The standoff got increasingly heated, and on April 20 Reno ordered Elián’s removal by force from his great-uncle’s home.  Before dawn on April 22, a large armed team of Border Patrol agents forcibly entered the house and, in an indelibly ugly scene, snatched Elián away. He was then returned to his father in Cuba.

That likely cost Al Gore Florida’s electoral votes in November 2000, and made George W. Bush the President of the United States.

It’s hard to overstate the anger Elián’s forced repatriation engendered in Miami.  It clearly set back decades of Democratic efforts to claw back support in the Cuban-American community. One may legitimately believe that returning Elián to his father was the right thing to do, but the political consequences are hard to dispute.

In 1996, Bill Clinton got 57.2% of the vote in Miami-Dade County. In 2000, Al Gore got only 52.5%. You might recall that Bush was leading Gore by a mere 537 votes in Florida when the Supreme Court stopped the recount, thereby awarding Florida’s electoral votes to Bush.

Flash forward 20 years to Bernie Sanders’ February 23 interview on 60 Minutes, in which he said: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but, you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad, you know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

You might argue, based on a close reading of his statement, that Bernie was not defending Castro, but it’s safe to say very few Cuban-Americans (or Venezualan-Americans) will hear it that way. The message they’re hearing is that Bernie Sanders thinks Castro’s Cuba really isn’t so bad.

The reaction in South Florida was swift and sharply negative. It has been all over the local TV news. Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago (who, as she points out, is a registered Democrat) published a scathing response entitled “I Went to School in Cuba under Castro. Here’s What It’s Like, Bernie Sanders“. In the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer wrote: “La afirmación de Sanders sobre Cuba es tan estúpida como decir que la Rusia de Stalin produjo grandes bailarines a pesar de sus asesinatos masivos, o que la Alemania nazi construyó las mejores carreteras del país y redujo la tasa de criminalidad, a pesar de sus campos de concentración.” (“Sanders’ statement about Cuba is just as stupid as saying that Stalin’s Russia produced great dancers despite his massive killings, or that Nazi Germany built the best highways and reduced the crime rate, in spite of its concentration camps.”)

Oppenheimer ends his column thus: “En resumen, los demócratas pueden despedirse del crucial estado de la Florida, y tal vez de otros, si eligen a Sanders como su candidato. Sería un suicidio político, y un regalo para Trump, el peor presidente de la historia reciente de Estados Unidos.” (“In summary, Democrats can say goodbye to the crucial state of Florida, and perhaps others, if they select Sanders as their candidate. It would be political suicide, and a gift to Trump, the worst president in the recent history of the United States.”) These are not the words of Trump supporters, and I don’t believe this is going away. The attack ads write themselves.

The Miami-Dade Democratic Party was so alarmed that they immediately issued a statement strongly denouncing the Castro regime.

If Bernie Sanders becomes the Democrat’s candidate, I think Oppenheimer is right: We can kiss Florida’s 29 electoral votes goodbye. Florida is the most important tossup state and has more electoral weight than any state except California and Texas, both of which are essentially decided. The mythical “Blue Wall” no longer exists, and Democrats cannot afford to concede Florida. Recent statewide elections here have been decided by the thinnest of margins, which means that if Democrats lose even a small percentage of Latino votes or if turnout drops off, then Florida will surely go to Trump.

The Democratic nomination is still a long way from decided, and no one really knows who can beat Trump. But Bernie’s dumbass remarks have made it all but certain that he would not win Florida in November if he’s the candidate.

Remember Elián Gonzalez!



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