In Cuba, mostly adept McAuliffe uses an f-word: Flag

The Washington Post

By: Laura Vozzella

HAVANA — In Cuba to lead a trade mission last week, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe navigated the island’s tricky political terrain with relative ease.

McAuliffe (D) was respectful and reserved in formal meetings with Cuban government ministers, nodding his head thoughtfully through sometimes ponderous presentations.

He spoke passionately about his long-standing opposition to the U.S. trade embargo. He even took care to pronounce soft Latin “A’s” in words such as “Castro” and “Havana.” This from a native upstate New Yorker, who usually hits vowels in ways that jangle Richmond’s Southern ears.

When he did cut loose — most notably by taking the wheel of a pink-and-white 1956 Chevy — he did so in a style fitting for a rum-drinking, cigar-smoking, fun-loving culture.

His only seeming slip-up: using an f-word,“flag.”

Once when speaking to American reporters, and twice in a formal presentation with University of Havana officials, McAuliffe used the word — in an expression that’s ordinary enough back home, but in Cuba it has the ring of imperialist ambition.

“Virginia Commonwealth University is putting a flag all over the globe,” he said in remarks about future exchange programs with the University of Havana. “And we thought it most appropriate that we put our flag down here in Cuba.”

Although McAuliffe was clearly speaking metaphorically, talk of flag-planting is “maybe not the best choice of words,” said James Williams, president of Washington-based Engage Cuba, which advocates for normalizing U.S.-Cuban ties. “If there’s one thing that Cuba cares about more than anything else, it is their sovereignty.”

McAuliffe’s translator toned it down, maybe in an act of diplomacy, or merely because she couldn’t keep up with Virginia’s voluble chief executive. She only mentioned “bandera” once, and made it sound as if the flag would just be passing through.

“We desire,” she said, “to carry the flag to other parts of the world.”

McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said there was never any risk that the governor’s comment would rub Cubans the wrong way.

“Both context and common sense make it clear that the Governor was touting the establishment of a new relationship between Virginia and Cuba,” Coy said via email. “You don’t need a degree from VCU or the University of Havana to understand that.”