YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
President Biden’s policies toward Latin America are facing scrutiny. This week there were historic protests in Cuba and more details were revealed about the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise. President Biden is facing mounting pressure from Cuban Americans who also took to the streets this week, and he is facing pressure from Republican lawmakers who made the fear of socialism a key election issue in 2020. Here’s Florida Senator and Cuban American Marco Rubio.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From video.) We should we clear in our language: We don’t just condemn this tyranny, we condemn this communist, this Marxist, this socialist tyranny. Call it for what it is.
MS. ALCINDOR: On Thursday the House Haiti Caucus also called on the White House to take action to support a democratic government in Haiti. That same day President Biden said large-scale military action in Haiti is unlikely.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We’re only sending American Marines to our embassy to make sure that they are secure and nothing is out of whack at all, but the idea of sending American forces into Haiti is not on the agenda at this moment.
MS. ALCINDOR: Joining me tonight to discuss all of this are four top reporters: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News; Abby Livingston, Washington bureau chief for the Texas Tribune; and Jasmine Wright, White House reporter for CNN. Thank you so much, all of you, for being here.
Peter, I’m going to start with you. You told our producer that Cuba is a calcified regime. You also said U.S. ties with Cuba are stuck in a framework from 60 years ago. Expand on that point. Talk about that.
PETER BAKER: Well, it does feel like we have been covering iterations of this story now for literally six decades, you know. Our predecessors on this show talked about this story, our predecessors’ predecessors talked about this story, and the dynamics often feel very familiar. Now, the question is whether these protests in the streets are leading to something that would actually be different because for years we have waited for that moment when popular pressure would say enough of this regime and it has not ever led to that. We’ve never gotten an Eastern European moment that we saw with Poland and Czechoslovakia and so forth in 1989, the fall of the wall, we never saw an Arab Spring-like moment that we saw at least briefly in the Middle East, and yet people keep looking for that. In America, our debate is pretty much the same debate we’ve been having. The quote you showed from Senator Rubio could have been said by his predecessors and their predecessors because we are in this – in this same dynamic. You know, it’s communism bad; what is our response? We are still in the same economic framework that we were basically under Eisenhower and Kennedy. Obama tried to change that in 2015. He sent an embassy and an ambassador. He tried to begin to loosen up, but he didn’t get any results from the Cuban side and a lot of people were frustrated that on the one side either they feel like it was naive on his part because it didn’t lead anywhere or on the other side they’re frustrated because Trump undid some of that stuff and we never really gave it a try.
MS. ALCINDOR: Jasmine, I want to come to you. President Biden – it sounds like when I’m talking to White House sources that there is some interest in trying to help the Cuban people maybe with internet, maybe with allowing Cuban Americans to send more money home to Cuba. That said, there is this really, really tough position that the – that the Biden administration is in because they don’t want to be seen as helping at all the Cuban government. Talk a little bit about what your reporting has revealed.
JASMINE WRIGHT: That’s right, and President Biden said really as much on Thursday. He said, you know, we would consider sending vaccines to the Cuban people but we don’t have any assurances that they would administer them properly. He said we would consider sending remittances to the Cuban people but we don’t have any assurances that the government is not going to take a huge chunk of it. So I think that you’re correct in which – that the administration finds itself in a hard place, and also I think you’re correct – or rather, from my reporting on President Biden, and White House – White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said this at one point, that, you know, changing the policy towards Cuba is not a top priority, and that is despite President Biden making a reversal of President Trump’s restrictive policies and return to President – former President Obama’s policies really a campaign pledge. That hasn’t happened. You know, we don’t know when it’s going to happen. Of course, like you said, President Biden said that he is thinking about, you know, or they’re trying to figure out how to bring the internet back to them. But I think that there is no clear idea when I talk to folks of what exactly this White House can do towards Cuba that is going to be effective, that is going to be – have the ability to make a change, and in fact that, you know, they are focused on Russia and they’re focused on the Middle East so that time and that capital to be spent over there just really doesn’t exist.
MS. ALCINDOR: Sahil, I want to come to you. What’s the reaction been on Congress to Cuba and the developments there?
SAHIL KAPUR: It’s been mixed. There have been disagreements, as is often the case on Capitol Hill. Within the Democratic Party, the debate here seems to be particularly salient. You had, for instance, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York arguing that part of the problem with what’s going on in Cuba is the 60-year U.S. embargo, whereas former Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell came back at her on Twitter – she’s from South Florida, represented an area with a lot of Cuban Americans – said that is not the problem; she said the problem is the failed policies of a communist regime and that that should be the focus. Among Republicans, I think Senator Rubio pretty much represents the mainstream view within that party. His family, of course, fled Cuba generations ago. He wrote a letter to President Biden several days ago calling for several things. One is to make clear that any attempt at encouraging mass migration from Cuba to the United States would be viewed here as an act of hostility. He encouraged the U.S. to facilitate free and open internet to make sure Cubans can have their voices heard. And he talked about the need to engage with allies to punish and marginalize the Cuban regime. How far any of this goes remains to be seen.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, it remains to be seen, and Abby, it also remains to be seen what’s the – it remains to be seen what the impact of this might be in red states, in GOP politics. What’s your reporting tell you about how this is playing out?
ABBY LIVINGSTON: Well, I think when you talk about Cuba, I mean, once – you know, you go back to the Kennedy White House and it was an absolute obsession for the president, and it’s obviously faded from the American foreign policy landscape and priorities. But at the same time, Cuba matters politically. There are many Democrats who still blame the Elian Gonzalez controversy on losing Florida in 2000, but when you take a step further than that it gives the Republicans an opportunity to or Democrats an opportunity or a danger of being tagged socialist, and that proved to be a very difficult thing for Democrats to overcome last cycle down ballot who were not Joe Biden, and Democrats posted disappointing returns. So I think it’s a tenuous situation politically.
MS. ALCINDOR: I also want to talk about Haiti. That is another, I think, issue that’s continued to develop and become a priority in some of the same ways that Cuba has because, of course, the Biden administration has wanted to be focused, as Jasmine said, on Russia and China. But I want to come to you, Peter, because you covered the Clinton administration’s response to the crisis in Haiti. How is what President Biden doing different at all, and do you see echoes of other presidents in the way that he’s handled this?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think President Biden learned his lessons from the Clinton era when we sent troops and we tried very hard to influence and discovered the limits of our ability and our patience to do it. And I think that, you know, we have over the years tried to help when there were deadly earthquakes and we’ve tried over the years to help, you know, encourage a more politically stable environment, all to be frustrated by, you know, another situation that feels very calcified. It does not feel like it has changed in a meaningful way and it’s right there in our backyard, and it’s a place that we have special, you know, affection for over the years, particularly many parts of America. And I think President Biden doesn’t want to get drawn into a quagmire. He’s just pulled the last troops or he’s just pulling the last troops out of Afghanistan. The idea of sending American troops into another place where the endgame is not clear and the capacity to actually make a difference is so uncertain, not part of his agenda. He’s not going to do that. So they’ll look for other ways to help, they’ll look for other ways to make a difference, but there are only so many tools in that toolkit and that’s been true for Republican and Democratic administrations going back for generations now.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, and that echoes a lot of what my reporting shows, too. This is a – this is a White House that is very cautious about how they handle Haiti. And also, when I talk to Haitian officials and Haitian Americans on the ground – (coughs) – there’s a real divide – excuse me – there’s a real divide among them when it comes to what they want to see America do. There’s a real question about whether or not they want to see American troops in Haiti, if they want to see Marines in Haiti. Some people say yes we need the help; others say we don’t want to be invaded. So that is also what President Biden is up against, so we’ll have to keep covering that story.
But we also discussed on the show the COVID-19 crisis. Let’s continue that conversation. A group of doctors in Tennessee are demanding answers after the state’s top vaccine official was fired and the state stopped vaccine outreach to all adolescents. Listen to what Dr. Jason Martin told CNN.
JASON MARTIN, M.D.: (From video.) I have several folks in my ICU right now with life-threatening COVID-19 infections, and as recently as yesterday afternoon one of them was crying on my shoulder wishing that they had had the vaccine before this had come to pass for them, and now they’re facing the possibility of death from a preventable disease process. I am pleading with the Justice Department, launch an investigation into Governor Bill Lee’s reckless misconduct that is endangering the lives of Tennesseans, lives that me and my colleagues took an oath to protect.
MS. ALCINDOR: Jasmine, I want to come to you. I mean, more than 600,000 Americans have died. What that doctor’s talking about is incredible, this idea that he has patients that are like – that are crying on his shoulder because of vaccine misinformation. But has this divide gone too far? Do you think that there is a chance and that the White House feels like there’s a chance to try to pull some of the politics out of this, this vaccine debate?
MS. WRIGHT: Well, I think the White House will sure enough try to do that. Whether or not they can succeed or whether or not there’s an avenue is a different case, and I think you can tell that by their use of this trusted messengers idea, right? They just recently announced that they’re going to do a NASCAR event, no doubt kind of trying to reach out to those who are center-right. We also – you know, D.C. was ablaze when Olivia Rodrigo, a pop star, came in.
MS. ALCINDOR: I had no idea who she was, I’ll just say it. (Laughter.) But I figured it out. I figured it out.
MS. WRIGHT: I knew who she was. (Laughter.)
MS. LIVINGSTON: I didn’t either.
MS. ALCINDOR: Thank you, Abby. (Laughter.)
MS. WRIGHT: But, you know, tried to reach out to younger people who the White House officials – if you ask them, they’ll tell you that. They are concerned that they are not getting enough of those vaccines. So, yes, I think that they are trying to figure out creative ways to pull some of the politics out of it and relate to – on a really human scale and go to where these people are. And I think that you also see that with their vaccine actual supply strategy, right? They migrated from those big, mass vaccination sites across the country to now making sure that doctor’s offices have enough vaccines when people come in to get their physicals, or you name it, that they can also inquire about the vaccine and possibly get it, right? That’d be the best-case scenario.
But you’re right, look, politics is so deeply entrenched in all facets of this country, and unfortunately vaccines is among them. And right now, it may be the most serious. So it’s up to the White House to figure out how you can do it. But like I said earlier, it’s hard for me to see how the federal government can convince people who do not want to take the vaccine how to do so.
MS. ALCINDOR: Sahil, I want to come to you because what I’m – when I was thinking about the way that the White House and President Biden – how they were talking about this vaccine misinformation, part of it was focusing on social media platforms, on Facebook. Of course, Facebook pushing back. But there is this real question of, OK, you’re calling out Facebook, but there also is the federal government. There is regulation. There are ways that laws could be passed to try to maybe regulate some of this. But do lawmakers – is there any talk on Capitol Hill on this issue specifically on vaccine misinformation and social media platforms?
MR. KAPUR: Not a lot. Not a lot.
MS. ALCINDOR: Your face was like, no. (Laughter.)
MR. KAPUR: Not a lot on the regulatory front. I mean, the state of affairs on Capitol Hill is pretty simple. Democrats are unanimous. They’re all saying get the vaccine, vaccines are good, they’re safe and effective, and their base is listening. Among Republicans, there is a real split. You have the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been emphatic in encouraging vaccines, calling them safe and effective, drawing upon his own experience as a boy who survived polio. There are others in the party – most notably Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky a little bit – who have been advancing these misinformation narratives that a lot of their base believes, and I think what’s going on in Tennessee is a powerful indication of the limits of President Biden’s persuasive powers. Here you have this grassroots force that is discouraging health officials from vaccinating and saving the lives of their own constituents. That’s why the White House has had so much trouble getting beyond the roughly two-thirds mark when it comes to vaccinations.
Just weeks ago – or, days ago, at a conservative – a popular conservative political action conference they were celebrating the face that the White House did not hit the 70 percent target. And they received applause from the crowd. That is what the White House is dealing with.
MR. BAKER: Well, and you see these states right now enacting laws not to encourage vaccination, but in fact the opposite – to protect the people who are unvaccinated, as if they were a discriminated class, right? Red states that don’t believe. It’s what Abby said on the show, right, it has become another marker of our tribal affiliation somehow, as opposed to a medical issue. The numbers are clear. You cited the best one – 99.5 percent of the people who have died of COVID lately were not vaccinated. The other number is the number of deaths a day right now is around 250 compared to around 5,000, is what it was at the peak. Why is it down 95 percent? Because of vaccines. We’re not doing anything else. And it just seems stunning that people have – you know, are still debating this. It shouldn’t be a debate.
MR. KAPUR: And, by the way, people can be persuaded. The data we have shows that one of the ways people have been persuaded since the beginning of this year, when they were hesitant about getting the vaccine, is that they heard or learnt something about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Another way? About a third of people who were persuaded said they spoke to someone they trust, and that person told them convincingly or pointed them to evidence that vaccines are safe and effective. So I don’t want to be too fatalistic about this. People can be convinced. And I think it does matter when people try.
MS. LIVINGSTON: I also wonder if the free market might encourage some people, in the sense of if there’s a life event you don’t get to go to because you don’t have a vaccine, that goes beyond politics and policy.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Abby, I was going to come to you for our last question, which is: Your colleagues at the Texas Tribune, they would like – they are reporting that Austin, Texas would like to require masks for unvaccinated – and require masks, but the laws in Texas, apparently, make it illegal? Talk a little bit about what’s going on here, and how are cities navigating that law?
MS. LIVINGSTON: Well, and I’m not super in the weeds on the policy, but what I will say is that in Texas – you take the vaccine out of it. Like, because I don’t want to peg that on any of the politicians. But what you see happening in Texas and other red states is you see the executives who managed this crisis put themselves up against Biden as a foil. And a lot of these people may run for president in 2024.
And this – the gold standard of this opposition to Biden is Ron DeSantis. But you also have Greg Abbott. And it’s the touting of emphasizing economics over public health. And what I think you’ll also – but at the same time you’ve got Governor Abbott, who has got primaries from the right, like Allen West. And part of his reason is his management of COVID. He was too hands-on. Not enough libertarian.
With regard to Austin, that is – anything the Austin city council or mayor does will be the thing that Republicans will beat on. It is the equivalent of beating up Washington. And so it is the liberal oasis of the state. And they will absolutely pummel them. So I think you have a real difference between the statewide officials and then rural areas and how they deal with public health policy in places like Austin.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, we’ll have to leave it there tonight. That was – it was so important to have those conversations. Thank you to Peter, Sahil, and Abby, and Jasmine, and thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you all the – a look at all the things behind the scenes in Washington.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.