Donna Shalala’s morning began with a rendition of “Guantanamera” performed on Spanish-language radio, an opportunity, however awkward, for the Democratic candidate for Congress to connect with members of the Hispanic community she is fighting to represent in Washington.
But by Wednesday afternoon, Shalala found her campaign headquarters surrounded by a group of angry protesters, as she tried to explain to reporters why a California lawmaker who had praised Cuban dictator Fidel Castro after his death was scheduled to appear at a campaign event with her.
Shalala, who campaigned with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and congressional candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, said she learned Tuesday that California Rep. Barbara Lee had been scheduled to join the lawmakers at Wedensday afternoon’s event at her Coral Gables campaign office. Press releases issued Tuesday by the campaigns of Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell listed Lee as an expected guest.
“I don’t know who invited her,” Shalala said. “We have members of Congress popping down here all the time.”
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Following Castro’s death in 2016, Lee told a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News that “we need to stop and pause and mourn his loss” and that she was “very sad for the Cuban people.”
“He led a revolution in Cuba that led social improvements for his people,” Lee said then, adding that during her eight meetings with Castro over the years, she found him to be a “smart man” and a “historian” who “wanted normal relations with the United States, but not at the expense of the accomplishments of the revolution.”
What started as a crowd of about 15 mostly Cuban-American protesters grew to about 40 at one point, as they pounded on every door they could find and clamored insults in both Spanish and English like “Nasty Pelosi” and “brujas” — witches.
Some of the demonstrators also condemned Democrats because they said they ignore how Cubans on the island and other oppressed people suffer — some lacking basic needs like toilet paper. It’s a charge members of the party, especially those in Miami, strongly deny.
No matter. The protesters denounced Democrats as “commies” and waved signs supporting Republican candidate Ron DeSantis, who is running for governor, and running mate Jeanette Núñez. But Miami-Dade County Republican Party Chairman Nelson Diaz said protesters weren’t officially affiliated with any group, and that, as far as he knew, nobody had paid them to be there.
Diaz said the group came together because they’re all against dictators in countries such as Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. Protesters acted angrily, he said, because they’re offended that Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell invited Lee to Miami. Opponent Maria Elvira Salazar was quoted in the Miami Herald Wednesday explaining that she’d like President Donald Trump to meet with Raúl Castro, but the protestors had no vitriol for the Republican candidate.
“There is nothing worse in this country than Barbara Lee,” Diaz said.
Lee’s scheduled appearance was brought up first by Salazar during a televised debate on Tuesday. District 27 is home to some 280,000 Cuban-American voters.
“It is shameful that a candidate from District 27 would bring a supporter of the Castro regime to campaign with her,” Salazar said in a press release. “This is not only disrespectful for the Cuban exile, but also for the millions of Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, many who live in this district, who are suffering as a result of the Castro regime.”
By Wednesday, Shalala’s campaign issued an update scrubbing Lee’s name from the list of scheduled guests and said Lee “will not be attending.” But after positioning herself as conservative on Cuba when her main rival in the Democratic primary traveled to the island, Shalala might have blown any residual good will.
“We’re not going to campaign with Barbara Lee. She did not come to stand here by our side,” Shalala said. “I disagree with anyone that praises Castro or praises [Nicaraguan leader Daniel] Ortega…or praises any other dictator… We should be bringing strong sanctions against them. Let me make it clear: Not every member of Congress that comes down here do we agree on every issue, but particularly on the Cuban issue or the Nicaraguan issue or the Venezuelan issue.”
Police officers and Secret Service members locked the building soon after the event started at 3 p.m., citing safety reasons. Shut out at the back entrance, about 15 people complained they had been invited and demanded answers.
One of them was Katy Sorenson, a former Miami-Dade county commissioner. She said she held a fundraising event at her home Tuesday night for Democrats.
“It’s unfortunate that a group of peaceful citizens can’t engage with the candidates they support,” Sorenson said, “while the protesters get to do whatever they want.”
Near her stood Ronyde C. Ponthieux, who left school early to attend the event with her parents. The 11-year-old was eager to ask Pelosi about her stance on Temporary Protection Status for Haitians.
“I was going to ask her if she was going to be our champion,” the sixth grader said. “This is unfair because my dad wasted gas and time. It doesn’t make sense.”
Shalala fought back by reviving an attack that Salazar’s Republican primary opponents hurled at her over the summer — that Salazar had treated Castro too warmly during a 1995 interview the former broadcast journalist conducted with the dictator.
Salazar’s opponents in the primary used the interview to label Salazar a Castro sympathizer. She called the interview snippets “poisonous” and “not trying to illustrate the truth” — and then blew away the field anyway, winning by double digits.
“I have an opponent that treated Castro with enormous respect, bowed to him and called him ‘el comandante.’ I would never do that, nor would I stand next to any of them at any time,” Shalala said. “We need to help the people of Venezuela, we need to help Colombia to absorb the Venezuelans that they have and we need to extend [Temporary Protected Status] to the Nicaraguans and to the Venezuelans.
Pelosi, a Democratic congresswoman from California, was met with loud jeers as she left the campaign office and entered a black SUV, which promptly drove off with a police escort tagging along.
She said that Lee was campaigning in Georgia, and could not make the event. She said she did not know what “the objection to her was and why she is not here.”
“I spoke to her last night, she said she was in Georgia,” Pelosi said. “I said, ‘You’re not coming?’ She said, ‘Well, I’m in Georgia.’”
She suggested a reporter interview Lee to find the answer to why she did not show up Wednesday. Lee’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
“I think that, with all due respect, the fate of the nation is at stake in this election… So there’s a lot at stake right now, and the participation of one member of Congress or another at an event, to me just doesn’t rise to that level for now,” she said. “We have twenty days to determine the fate of the nation.”
Mucarsel-Powell, who is running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, said she resented the “rhetoric that Republicans are using, trying to accuse us of being socialists.
“And I’ll tell you one thing,” she said. “It’s not only offensive to the Cubans living in Cuba, the Venezuelans who are fighting for their lives or the Nicaraguans. It’s an insult to the [Hispanic] people who are living here today.”
Frank de Varona, who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and was later sentenced to 30 years by the Castro regime until President John F. Kennedy paid for his release and those of others who had taken part in the invasion, said he found out about the event Tuesday through an email. He felt insulted, he said.
Gripping a sign that blocked off the word “Comunista,” de Varona said he couldn’t understand why Democrats sympathized with the Castros when Fidel died and why they support the “mass-murdering government.”
“I’m angry,” he said. “I’m furious.”