Courting Cuban voters, Rick Scott says Biden ‘turned his back’ on Latin America

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott used a campaign stop in Hialeah Gardens on Monday to rebuke President Joe Biden over his approach to Cuba and democracy in Latin America, accusing the president of appeasing authoritarian regimes throughout the region.

Flanked by U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, state Rep. Alex Rizo and Miami-Dade County Commissioner René Garcia at the Assault Brigade 2506 Honorary Museum, Scott launched into a speech – in both English and Spanish – condemning the Biden administration’s decision to remove Cuba from a short list of countries that the U.S. alleges are “not cooperating fully” with anti-terrorism efforts.

He accused administration officials of withholding details about the decision from members of Congress, including those on the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which he is a member. Scott said that the move proved that Biden had no interest in promoting or safeguarding democracy in Latin America.

“This decision to remove Cuba from the list of countries that support terrorism — with no evidence, zero, no evidence — is wrong,” Scott said. “But you look at everything Biden’s done, he’s turned his back on Cuba and Venezuela and Nicaragua and Colombia. He’s turned his back on any fight for liberty and freedom. He doesn’t care.”

Scott’s remarks came as he announced the launch of “Cubans for Rick Scott,” a coalition of Cuban-American leaders who are backing the first-term U.S. senator’s reelection bid. The appearance – which coincided with the 122nd anniversary of Cuban independence – marked the latest effort by Scott to tighten his grip on a key Republican electorate in South Florida as he looks to notch a victory among Hispanic voters in November.

Crucial to achieving that goal has been aggressive anti-communist messaging, as well as efforts to cast Democrats – including his likely Democratic opponent, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell – as “socialists.” For over a month now, Scott has spent millions of dollars on ads warning of an encroaching communist threat in the U.S.

It’s the same message that many Republicans, like former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have found success with in Miami-Dade County, where Latin American politics – especially those of Cuba – weigh heavily on how people vote in U.S. elections.

The Biden administration’s decision last week to take Cuba off the list of countries not fully cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts has only added fuel to Scott’s arguments. Since the move was announced last Wednesday, Republicans have accused Biden and his administration of paving the way for the normalization of relations with Cuba, which has been under a U.S. trade embargo for more than 50 years.

Gimenez, a former Miami-Dade County mayor who was born in Havana, said on Monday that the Biden administration’s decision to take Cuba off the list of countries not fully cooperating with the United States’ fight against terrorism was nonsensical, given its designation as a state sponsor of terror.

“You’re a state sponsor of terrorism, but you cooperate against terrorism?” Gimenez asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s the first step towards normalizing relationships,” taking the pressure off of Cuba,” he added. “Again, the wrong thing to do for this hemisphere, the wrong thing to do for the Cuban people, the wrong thing to do for America.”

The U.S. State Department said that Cuba’s “refusal to engage with Colombia on extradition requests” for National Liberation Army guerrilla members was the main reason the island had been placed on the list of countries not fully cooperating with anti-terrorism efforts in the first place.

Those warrants have since been suspended. At the same time, Cuba has begun cooperating with U.S. law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts, the State Department said.

“Therefore, the Department determined that Cuba’s continued certification as a ‘not fully cooperating country’ was no longer appropriate,” a State Department official said in a statement.

The White House declined to comment on Scott’s remarks, deferring to the State Department.

Cuba still remains on a separate, more consequential list of state sponsors of terrorism – a roster that also includes North Korea, Iran and Syria. Former President Donald Trump placed Cuba back on that list in 2021, just days before leaving the White House.

Yet Scott said that the Biden administration’s decision on Cuba was representative of what he said was the president’s overall lack of interest in or concern about Latin America.

“They don’t care,” Scott said. “They don’t care about Cuba. They don’t care about Venezuela. They don’t care about Nicaragua. It’s disgusting.”

McClatchy Chief Washington Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this story.