Karen Bass, Cuba, and Cold War-Era Simplifications: A Critical Look at How the Media Covered the VP Selection Process and the History of Black Internationalism - Matthew Alexander Randolph and Mikael Wolfe

From Karen Bass to Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris’s selection as Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential running mate is groundbreaking, indeed historic. Harris is the first Black woman to join a presidential ticket after running herself for president. This is of course cause for celebration, especially since it now makes her the Democratic frontrunner for president in 2024 or 2028, should she and Biden be elected in November.  

Because the selection process was unusually public after Biden promised to pick a woman in March, the media vetted many potential candidates he was considering for months. Some media provided near daily “veepstakes” reports on who was still likely in the running, while others even ranked each candidate’s likelihood of being selected as news events changed the dynamics of the presidential campaign. In the wake of the nationwide protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder in late May in particular, the pressure on Biden to choose a Black woman intensified. This elevated the prospects of several Black women beyond such already high profile candidates as Kamala Harris and Susan Rice. 

One of them was Congresswoman Karen Bass of southern California, who is Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. During late July and the first week of August, Bass’s “stock” in the veepstakes rose dramatically, with some media placing her right alongside Harris and Rice. But once the media examined Bass’s personal background and long record as State Assemblywoman and then Congresswoman, her stock fell just as rapidly. 

Despite all of her impressive accomplishments on the most pressing domestic issues of the moment to the American public (COVID-19, race relations, health care, etc) -- equaling or surpassing Harris’s in terms of what Biden sought in his VP-- she possessed just one “liability” that the media fixated on: Her past travels to Cuba, most of them done in the 1970s and 80s before she even entered electoral politics, along with a few positive statements that she made about Fidel Castro while in elected office. According to the New York Times, Biden wasn’t all that concerned about this liability, since he planned to win the election in the Midwest, not Florida, where Cuban Americans still hold much electoral influence. More important to him was the fact that, unlike Harris, he hardly knew Bass. 

While Biden himself may not have made much of Bass’s Cuba liability, centrist Democrats certainly did, and this likely worried his campaign advisers. The context in which she had engaged with Cuba did not matter to them. The mere fact that she had said anything positive at all about Castro and set foot in Cuba to help build houses - an act of solidarity that she would be praised for doing virtually anywhere else - literally and figuratively raised a red flag for them.


Yet it was not only centrist Democrats who jumped on this Cold War-like bandwagon. Unsurprisingly, Bass’s relationship with Cuba was also flattened by the right, such as the conservative Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen, who accused her of supporting an “evil” regime. Even the liberal San José Mercury News, one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s major newspapers, evaluated her political stock similarly, doing so alongside the real stock of Apple Computer. Apple got an upward arrow for a fifty percent jump in value while Bass got a downward arrow because “news reports and videos show she praised Scientology, Fidel Castro and a top member of Communist Party USA. Paging Kamala Harris.” No other context was provided. 

If liberals, centrists, and conservatives, whether Democratic or Republican, had bothered to look into that context, they would have found out that Black progressives like Bass have long traveled to Cuba, not simply to support “Cuba’s Communist dictatorship” but to learn from the island’s social programs. 

Although some media gave Bass a chance to respond to the red-baiting, it was only so she could defend herself and disavow her past: “I’m not a socialist, I’m not a Communist. I’ve belonged to one party my entire life and that’s the Democratic Party, and I’m a Christian.” (Most Cubans, even members of the Communist Party, identify as Catholic). But this repentance was insufficient, for she had committed the unforgivable sin of consorting with a long despised “enemy.”


Karen Bass has served as the U.S. Representative from California’s 37th Congressional District since 2013. A member of the Democratic Party, she previously represented the state’s 33rd Congressional District from 2011 to 2013 after six years in the California State Assembly.