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Breaking down the Hispanic vote in South Florida

While in high school in the 1960s, Enrique Encinosa had to give a speech about the most dramatic day of his life.

His fellow students told of a trip to an Elvis concert, or the day their dog got run over. Encinosa, who came to the U.S. from Cuba at age 12, told of the bombs exploding outside Havana ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion; of his neighbors sentenced to 20 years in prison and the one shot to death by a revolutionary firing squad.

His family fled the island soon after those incidents, among the tens of thousands of Cubans who arrived in America in the decades following Fidel Castro’s revolution. These days, at 71, Encinosa hosts a weeknight radio program on Miami’s 670 AM, “La Poderosa.” While American Hispanics generally lean toward the Democratic Party, Cubans don’t, and it’s obvious on Encinosa’s show.

Manny Garcia, a frequent guest political commentator, also came to the U.S. from Cuba; his family settled in Miami in 1965, when he was 3. Like Encinosa, Garcia supports President Donald Trump. Their reasons are the same as many other Trump supporters — they like his “business approach;” they like that he “gets things done;” they like the overt patriotism. Equally important is what they don’t like.

“The worst word you can say to a Latino exile in South Florida, of any of four or five different nationality groups, is socialism,” Encinosa said.

Whether Joe Biden is actually a socialist is irrelevant. Distinctions between the “democratic socialism” of welfare states and the totalitarian socialism of Castro’s Cuba matter little to Encinosa and Garcia. When they hear the word socialism, they remember feelings of fear and despair. It’s a hard brand for Democrats to overcome in exile-heavy Miami.

That may explain why many South Florida Hispanics voted for President Trump. A unique blend of history and effective messaging made this particular “bubble” population more receptive to his campaign.

While Latinos nationally leaned more toward Biden, it wasn’t just Cuban Americans that voted for Trump. The Trump campaign also tried to reach Venezuelans and Nicaraguans who fled socialist dictatorships, as well as traditionally conservative Colombians. Their votes helped Trump over perform in Miami-Dade County relative to 2016, when Hillary Clinton secured 63.7% of the vote; in 2020, Biden still won the county, but only with 53.4%. While many South Florida Hispanics still opposed Trump, his over performance relative to Hispanics elsewhere put Florida’s 29 electoral votes out of reach for the Biden campaign.

Cuban political preferences have long been an outlier among American Hispanic populations, which tend to prefer Democrats. But until recently, Cubans had also been trending away from Republicans. That trend appears to have reversed in 2020. Combined with other socialism-wary voters of varying Hispanic nationalities, South Florida Cubans offered evidence that, as the website 538 observed, there’s no such thing as “the Latino vote.”

For Cubans, a long history of Republican support

On the night of April 17, 1961, an invasion force of some 1,500 — mostly American-trained Cuban exiles — arrived at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s southern coast to overthrow Castro. Some 60 years later, the Kennedy administration’s failures at Playa Girón are still offered by some Miami Cubans as the moment when Cuban American voters lurched toward the Republican Party.

But this isn’t really what happened, according to Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University who conducts the Cuba Poll. Perhaps the story holds true for some Miami Cubans, but the Bay of Pigs failure wasn’t what drove Cubans toward Republicans in aggregate.

“In the ’60s and the ’70s,” Grenier said, “the Democratic Party still had a shot at Cubans. Until the ’80s, the jury was out.”

But Ronald Reagan forged an alliance between Cubans and Republicans that still reverberates today. Cuban exiles made a natural ally in his crusade against communism. Plus the Republican Party of that era, Grenier said, was looking to chip away at Democratic strongholds and saw a mutually beneficial opportunity in South Florida.

“The Republican Party offered a way to integrate Cubans into the American body politic,” Grenier said. It was the beginning of a long courtship of Cubans by the Republican Party.

In 1999, Cuban 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez arrived in South Florida after a perilous journey at sea, during which his mother died trying to get him to the U.S.. His father remained in Cuba, and while Gonzalez’s U.S. relatives sought to keep him in America, his father pleaded for his return.

On April 22, 2000, after a prolonged legal battle, Bill Clinton’s attorney general Janet Reno ordered the boy sent back to Cuba. He was taken from his Miami home at gunpoint by federal agents and reunited with his father, fulfilling the will of a majority of Americans but defying once more the Cuban exile community. “It hurt (2001 Democratic presidential candidate Al) Gore,” Garcia said, “to the point that Florida was lost.”

Lately, Cuban support for Republicans had begun to fade. “It would be dangerous for the Republicans to take the Cuban American vote for granted, as the community is becoming more differentiated with younger voters wanting more independence,” Damien Fermandez, of the Cuban research institute at Florida International University, told The Guardian ahead of Florida’s 2008 Republican primary.

His assessment proved prescient. With a new generation of American-born Cubans coming of age, the share of Cuban Republicans dropped throughout the 2000s and 2010s, per the Pew Research Center, from 64% in 2002 to 56% in 2006 to 47% in 2013, with the Democratic Party not far behind at 44%. Florida International’s Cuba Poll found different results in 2014, with Republicans losing ground and Democrats gaining ground, but not nearly as much as Pew’s poll suggested. Either way, Hillary Clinton’s strong showing in Miami-Dade County was made possible in part by waning Cuban support for Republicans.

But in 2020, the pendulum appears to have swung back toward Republicans, with 58% of Cuban Americans either identifying as or leaning Republican. The Trump campaign courted them heavily over the past four years, along with Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. It’s unclear how well it worked out for the non-Cuban nationalities, and it’s unlikely, Grenier said, that they’d have the sheer numbers to swing an election anyway.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know (how those groups actually voted),” he added.

Regardless, some viewed Trump’s courtship of those groups and Cubans as smart politics, while others called it irrational fearmongering.

A four-year, eight-cylinder campaign

The commercial begins with dramatic music and a warning to Venezuelan voters: “Joe Biden: El Candidato del Chavismo,” it reads; “Joe Biden: The Chavista candidate.” It’s superimposed on a photo of Biden smiling beside former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, who since Chávez’s death in 2013 has overseen record-breaking inflation, government-sanctioned violence, a humanitarian crisis and a mass refugee exodus. After playing a video of a Venezuelan politician announcing that the “Bolivarian revolution” is spreading and could reach the U.S., the commercial again warns that Chavistas want Biden to win. “No lo permitas,” it implores; “don’t let it happen.”

This particular ad debuted just a few weeks before the election, but it was part of a long campaign by Republicans to court South Florida’s exile community. From making regular visits to Miami to discussing Latin American foreign policy, Trump spent years making certain South Florida Hispanics felt heard.

“I’m a big critic of Trump, but us Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans hadn’t had anyone pay attention to our crises in a while,” said Germania Rodriguez Poleo, The Independent’s Miami correspondent. “Trump, just by paying attention to the crisis, has done something for us,” even if there’s more that could be done.

South Florida Democrats, meanwhile, spent the months ahead of the election warning the Biden campaign of Trump’s gains in the area. While Trump volunteers knocked on doors and labeled Democrats as the very socialists Miami’s exiles had once fled, Democrats did little to fight back until the election neared. By then, the Republicans had already made their mark.

Compared to his predecessor, who tried to normalize relations with Cuba, Trump also took a more hardline approach that was thought to appeal to older, traditionally Republican Cubans. But polling suggests that the most recent Cuban arrivals — those who came to the U.S. between 2010 and 2015 — are thus far the most Republican-leaning Cubans of all — 76% of them identify as Republicans, while only 5% identify as Democrats.

William Kelly, a doctoral candidate in Latin American and Caribbean history at Rutgers University, offered one potential explanation in The Washington Post. After the revolution, he wrote, Cuba became “the face of the possibilities for resistance against colonialism and oppression within the developing world.” But in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, material scarcity became so severe that, Kelly argues, Cubans who came of age thereafter had no reason to embrace that ideology.

“The country from which these more recently arrived Cuban Americans fled is still defined by the national government’s rhetoric of social justice and personal sacrifice,” he wrote, “but these Cubans are completely alienated from its purpose.” Therefore, they’re much more likely to embrace Trump’s — and the Republican Party’s — overtures of self-reliance and entrepreneurship.

Trump has also tried to win over Venezuelans, perhaps most notably through his recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. And his overt brand of flag-waving nationalism appeals to many Miami exiles, who feel immense pride in a country where they found a second chance.

“You can tell he really loves his country,” said Andreina Kissane, president of the South Florida-based Venezuelan American Republican Alliance.

In the Cuban-heavy Miami suburb of Hialeah, Politico reporter Sabrina Rodriguez wrote, a vote for Trump had become for many a vote for patriotism itself. “Every conversation I had with a Trump supporter,” Rodriguez told the Deseret News, “would be related to being American, and how being a good American was like being like Trump.”

Fearmongering and failure

Journalist Paola Ramos saw “a story the numbers miss.” Buried in national analysis of Trump’s relative success in Miami-Dade County and praise for his campaign’s efforts in the area, she claimed, was a sadder, more human story.

“I know exactly how he did it: not by winning them over, but rather by exploiting their deepest fears,” she wrote for Vogue. “Trump reopened people’s wounds. He tapped into that feeling of betrayal by falsely but very masterfully casting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the return of communism; there is nothing more terrifying than the idea of losing your land — not once, but twice.”

That casting involved a massive disinformation campaign, with claims about the Democratic “deep state” rampant on Spanish-speaking information channels in South Florida. “Disinformation is just part of the American political system now,” Grenier said. “(Cubans) are pretty much swallowing the same water that everybody else is.” And the most effective disinformation was the line coming from the top of the Republican Party: That Biden and Harris marked the advent of socialism/communism in America.

But the understandable fear of the word socialism raises a question: Why isn’t there similar fear about Trump’s strongman, populist impulses? The history of Latin America is riddled with “caudillos,” authoritarian military leaders who could embrace the politics of the left, as in Chávez and Castro, or the right, as in Chile’s Augusto Pinochet or the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. What they have in common, among other things, are demands of extreme loyalty, a lack of respect for institutions, a cult of personality and a complete intolerance of opposition.

“The authoritarian-ness of Trump,” Grenier said, “it happened. It’s not made up.” But Kissane, from the Venezuelan American Republican Alliance, draws a stark distinction between the president and someone like Chavez.

“To compare Trump with Chávez, there’s no similarities whatsoever. They’re not the same species,” she said. “Chávez ruined the country at every level, from morality to the economy.” In contrast, she touted Trump’s pre-pandemic job and economic gains, his lack of corruption and his executive order aimed at lower prescription drug prices. Trump, in her view, has made America more prosperous.

Encinosa and Garcia, meanwhile, are both heavily critical of Trump’s personality — “He can be crass and nonpresidential,” Encinosa said; “He never really pays attention to the people around him… I think it showed in the first debate, and I thought it was pathetic,” Garcia added — but, like Kissane, they don’t much care when they see the alternative as worse.

“Why would they be willing to overlook Trump’s demeanor?” Rodriguez Poleo asked. “Because to them, the alternative is worse. The alternative is a party whose leader once watched a baseball game with (Raul) Castro, who they see as a murderous dictator.”

Between Democrats’ failure to brand Trump as a “caudillo” and their inability to shake the socialism label — a difficult task when some in the party wear the label proudly, to the delight of their constituents yet to the detriment of their South Florida delegation — plus Republicans’ historical advantages and Trump’s fierce Miami campaigning, for Democrats, as Rodriguez Poleo wrote for the Independent, “it was a death foretold” in Florida.

A veering of values

Reporters covering the 2020 election have regularly repeated the refrain that “Latino voters are not a monolith.” It’s become so ubiquitous that after the election, Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor Angel Rodriguez opined, “Looking forward to not seeing the word monolith for a while.” But when considering the Hispanic/Latino electorate in general, it’s a helpful phrase; the diversity between Mexican Americans in Texas and Cuban Americans in Florida and Puerto Ricans in New York is immense. And even though Cuban Americans lean Republican and Mexican Americans lean Democrat, plenty of people in each group buck those leanings.

But is there anything they share that Democrats can leverage to court votes?

Ditching the socialist labels would be helpful for some segments of the electorate, Rodriguez Poleo said. But labels like Defund the Police are also harmful, she added. Latinos, she argued in the Independent, also don’t like certain parts of “woke” white culture.

Indeed, Trump didn’t only make progress with South Florida Hispanics. He also performed well among Tejanos and gained ground with Puerto Ricans in Orlando. There are many potential reasons, from targeted campaigning to a surprising cultural resonance. The latter came up with Encinosa and Garcia.

Again, they love Trump’s overt patriotism for the country that gave them a second chance. “There’s this love for this country that took in Cubans, that took in exiles,” Rodriguez explained, adding that while people can debate about the true meaning of patriotism, many Cubans see their vision reflected in Trump. “For Cubans, it’s like, how could you criticize this country?”

The Republican Party has seized the mantle of the patriotic party in the eyes of many Hispanic voters, who also, per Rodriguez Poleo, “are by far more socially conservative than North Americans.” To regain ground, she said Democrats must recognize the diversity of Hispanic nationalities and speak to them accordingly.

“They never have gotten their story right about how to talk to Cubans,” Grenier added. “They talk about human rights in Cuba, as if (Cubans) don’t have an interest in stuff here.”

Until then, at least in South Florida’s Cuban community, Grenier said enthusiasm for the Republican Party feels like the 1980s all over again.

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