VP contender Karen Bass’ Cuba baggage a burden in Florida

In this photo provided by Robert Lewis, Lewis takes a selfie in the Little Havana neighborhood in Miami, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Until recently, Lewis had never heard of Karen Bass, the California congresswoman in contention to be Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's running mate. But the recent college graduate had long heard stories from his grandfather recounting the days of oppression in Cuba under Fidel Castro. (Robert Lewis via AP) (Robert Lewis)

MIAMI – Until recently, Robert Lewis had never heard of Karen Bass, the California congresswoman in contention to be Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's running mate. But the recent college graduate had long heard stories from his grandfather recounting the days of oppression in Cuba under Fidel Castro.

When he learned that Bass had called Castro's death “a great loss,” the 22-year-old considered it a disregard for the plight of those who suffered at the hands of Castro's government.

“Through the stories from my grandparents and because of my upbringing, it makes me feel like their experiences were my own," said Lewis, a political independent who is still weighing his choices ahead of the presidential election.

Lewis' reaction is a blow to Democrats who in recent years have tried to pull young Cubans in Florida away from the Republican Party, the political home of many of their parents and grandparents. The next generation is less focused on the past and open to change, Democrats argued, as President Barack Obama embraced engagement with Cuba and in 2014 declared he would "bury the last remnant of the Cold War."

But Bass' comments provide fresh evidence to the contrary. While polling shows young Cubans in Florida open to new policies, they also remain skeptical of the Cuban government and, experts note, wary of politicians who aren't. Even for some young Cubans, the congresswoman's remarks are troubling — and a reminder that Castro still stirs strong passions.

“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” said one poster on a Facebook community called “Cubanos Con Biden," a 6,000-member group partially run by the Biden campaign. It has been dominated by discussion about Bass in recent days.

Hispanics account for one-fourth of the population of Florida, a critical presidential battleground, and 1 in every 5 of its 13.8 million voters. The Pew Research Center estimates that nearly a third of Florida’s Hispanic voters have roots in Cuba.

Republicans have long dominated with those voters, in part by taking a hard line on maintaining the embargo meant to isolate the island and its now-deceased leader. But shifting views on the embargo have given Democrats hope.