Fabiola Santiago

Democratic presidential candidates can’t afford to ignore Cuba, Venezuela issues. Not in Miami. | Opinion

Judging by the recent visits to Miami of Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden and wild-card millennial Pete Buttigieg – “call me Mayor Pete” — it seems as if Democrats will never learn how to campaign in Miami.

Oh, you didn’t know they were in town?

No wonder.

They hardly did or said anything that made big news.

Biden’s speech at a Coral Gables fundraiser warning that another Trump term could mean the end of NATO and world peace had the right idea but fell short of what it could have been.

Without Cuba or Venezuela on their plate to stir things up, the fund-raising visits were yawns. I know it’s early on in the race for the Democratic nomination, but if you want attention here, you have to start early — target the message and make a connection.

And then, you come back again — and you’re familia. De la casa, a household name.

Get it?

Of the almost 3 million people who live in Miami-Dade County, 52 percent were born in another country — and almost 70 percent of the population is Hispanic.

This is not Wilmington, Delaware. This is not South Bend, Indiana.

This is not Middle America.

It should be basic, Miami 101 that when Democrats running for the highest office in the land visit the Capital of the Americas, they show some interest and grasp of U.S. policy toward the region.

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The Republicans have mastered to perfection the art of appearing to hold all the answers on Latin America. They own the topic for the most part because they’re willing to put themselves out there time and again, even as they don’t deliver real results.

GOP politicians aren’t afraid of talking U.S.-Latin America policy; they dive in. They don’t treat it as somebody else’s hobbyhorse. They give it a front seat when they’re in town.

Of course Hispanics in Florida care about education, the environment, climate change, the Mueller report, immigration, social justice – you name it. But what happens in our native lands affects us in this state, and particularly in Miami. We care in double the dose: for us and for the people we left behind. It makes U.S. foreign policy a local concern.

I know the visits were short and for the purpose of fund-raising.

But, as hot as Cuba is again right now with the Helms-Burton law in effect and generating unprecedented U.S.-based property rights lawsuits — and a massive administration crackdown on Obama policy underway — it’s almost unforgivable that Biden and Buttigieg missed the opportunity to at least appear interested in public.

Even hotter is Venezuela, which could either be winning back its democracy under the watch of President Donald Trump — or facing its own Bay of Pigs fiasco.

At every chance, the Republicans keep dangling the carrot of “all options are on the table” when they know well that there’s no support whatsoever in this country for a Venezuela invasion.

The Democrats’ silence allows the Republicans to take up all that oxygen in the room.

Democrats need to push the work they do, the stances they take that favor Hispanics, at every opportunity: Biden and Buttigieg should’ve been reminding people that Democrats are the ones pushing for temporary protection status for Venezuelans in the United States — and that the Trump administration won’t give it to them. And that neither did Florida Republicans, who just refused to exempt Venezuelans from the new anti-sanctuary city law passed by the Legislature.

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We’re all desperately yearning to hear what Democratic candidates for president have to say about Cuba and Venezuela because, unlike races for local and state office, it does matter, it is relevant.

Does a Florida 2020 win not matter?

The Democrats can’t afford to wait to show some muscle in this area and wrestle the topics away from President Trump and the Republicans. Certainly they can’t remain silent when the GOP is casting Democrats as socialists conspiring against capitalism.

The midterm losses for statewide office in Florida should’ve taught Dems something.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, for example, spent his eight years in office meeting with all the different Hispanic communities around the state, listening, learning, speaking some Spanish, garbled as it was, bless his otherwise cold heart — and building a profile. He also traveled to Latin American nations in the news and made sure his constituents back home knew it.

As close as he came in the race, Democratic incumbent Senator Bill Nelson couldn’t catch up — and he lost his seat to Scott.

During the gubernatorial campaign to replace Scott — and since he’s taken office — Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t missed a beat rewarding and staying in touch with his Cuban-American supporters. He named a Cuban-American lieutenant governor and a Supreme Court judge. The political playbook might say that’s plenty for now, so long, folks, but there’s DeSantis showing up to Cuban-American events that would be just fine without his presence.

But that’s the Republicans for you.

Does a 2020 win in Florida not matter to Democrats?

Of course.

The clearest sign of how important Miami is to the Democrats is that they chose to hold their first primary debate in the Magic City next month.

Now, they need to own the idea that Cuba and Venezuela issues belong on that stage, too.

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and 2020 presidential candidate, greets a voter in a crowd during a grassroots fundraiser at Wynwood Walls on Monday, May 20, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”