More from the series
Democratic debates in Miami
Ten Democratic presidential candidates, including Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, participate in the second night of debates at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio became the latest presidential candidate to flash a little español this week when, during a political rally Thursday, he pulled out a Spanish phrase he thought might motivate workers striking at Miami International Airport.
But instead of endearing himself to South Florida’s Hispanic diaspora, an apparently unwitting de Blasio uttered a revolutionary rallying cry deeply associated with Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution and a man viewed by hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles as a sociopath and mass murderer.
In a gaffe that forced him to apologize hours later, de Blasio quoted notorious Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara as he spoke Thursday in Terminal D to contract workers protesting poor pay and unsafe conditions. The big-city mayor apparently thought he was saying something akin to the United Farm Workers’ co-opted Si se puede! and instead dropped Che’s most famous quote — instantly enraging Florida Democrats and illustrating concerns that some of the Democratic Party’s biggest figures remain ignorant to the intricacies of Miami politics.
“This is the problem that we run into all the time,” Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-American state senator who spoke at the rally before de Blasio, said of the nuances of campaigning in South Florida. “The left has [some] people that are just clueless as hell.”
In a statement to the Herald after this story was published, CEO of Eulen America Xaviar Rabell, whose workers walked off the job Thursday, said, “We do not object at all if our employees wish to unionize. No one needs to mislead the public about our company in order to choose the right to collective bargaining. What we do object to is inaccurate and unfair characterizations about us and how we treat our team members. Eulen America wants to reiterate our full commitment to our business partners, our employees and our culture of safety and respect.”
De Blasio, who was in Miami this week to participate in the presidential debates, got into trouble Thursday when he appeared at the airport for a rally for ramp and cargo workers. With a crowd of around 100 chanted behind him, de Blasio urged them to unionize. “The eyes of the world are on this airport, the eyes of the world are on Miami-Dade.”
Before giving up the microphone to the next speaker, he blurted a quote from one of the most hated historical figures in Miami: “Hasta la victoria, siempre.”
Behind de Blasio, the crowd cheered and didn’t seem fazed. But the phrase — which translates roughly to “Ever on to victory!” — was a mantra for Guevara, who became one of Fidel Castro’s top lieutenants. Raúl Castro uttered the quote on Cuban television in 2016 when he announced to the world that his older brother had died.
Guevara, though hated by Miami’s Cuban exile community, has been treated by some leftists as a martyr and to some extent became a pop culture figure following his execution in Bolivia. De Blasio took an interest in the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the late ‘80s and honeymooned in Cuba, according to The New York Times.
De Blasio also uttered the quote back in 2013 during his mayoral race, and a publication called the Empire State Tribune pointed out that he’d quoted Guevara. But he said late Thursday that he was unaware that the quote was used by Guevara.
“I did not know the phrase I used in Miami today was associated with Che Guevara & I did not mean to offend anyone who heard it that way. I certainly apologize for not understanding that history,” the mayor wrote on Twitter. “I only meant it as a literal message to the striking airport workers that I believed they would be victorious in their strike.”
Regardless, de Blasio outraged Democrats in Miami and the comment led to angry demands for an apology from both the Miami-Dade and state Democratic Parties. Miami’s Republican mayor, who’d visited the Adrienne Arsht Center Wednesday as de Blasio debated his primary opponents, accused his New York counterpart of quoting a “murderer for political gain.”
The hits kept coming.
José Javier Rodríguez, a state senator who like Taddeo spoke at the event and left before de Blasio’s speech, called on him to apologize. Rodríguez noted that many of the airport protesters were, like himself, Cuban. Miami political consultant Christian Ulvert, who is Nicaraguan, called the use of the quote “complete ignorance” and “beyond disrespectful.” Miami Congresswoman Donna Shalala called it “unacceptable.”
“Does he really know who Che Guevara was?” asked Félix Rodríguez, a Bay of Pigs veteran who helped the Bolivian army capture Guevara. “I don’t think so. If he does, he’s a f---ing a--hole.”
Rodríguez said Guevara “hated the United States.”
The incident was reminiscent of 2012, when GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney mistakenly associated a Fidel Castro slogan with a free Cuba during a visit to Miami. Romney said “Patria o muerte, venceremos — Fatherland or death, we shall overcome — a trademark phrase Fidel Castro used to close his speeches.
But part of the frustration from Democrats Thurday was that de Blasio hadn’t just damaged his own campaign. It’s possible he did more harm to Democrats in South Florida, who’ve been strategizing for months in order to reach out to Hispanic voters and get ahead of efforts by the Republican Party to brand them as socialists.
Around this week’s debates, Republicans set up protests outside the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts to slam Democrats as socialists. It’s a theme that has been repeated all week by the Republican National Committee and by President Donald Trump’s campaign, which launched its Latinos for Trump effort in Miami this week.
Ironically, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told the Miami Herald early this month during an interview that he believed the debates in Miami would be a great chance for the party to beat back the socialism-themed attacks. Candidates U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who also debated Wednesday, also made appearances at the airport in support of the workers.
De Blasio told reporters Thursday evening that despite Republican criticism, his statements don’t show socialism in the Democratic Party.
“I was telling those airport workers that I thought they were going to win their strike in the end,” he said. “They responded energetically because it was simply a matter of encouraging them. As a leader, you have to apologize when you make a mistake. ... I thought it was a generic, Spanish-language phrase that fit the occasion.”
Instead, it was a third rail.
“Many of these candidates would do well to speak to some of us of the nuances of Florida,” Taddeo said.