Election 2020

In Fight for Florida’s Young Latinos, Social Media Becomes the Battleground

Young Cuban Americans have turned the internet into a political battlefield in this must-win swing state, but the Cuban American vote is even more pro-Trump now than in 2016.

A supporter uses a mobile phone to take a picture during a rally for U.S. President Donald Trump on Oct. 23, 2020 in Pensacola, Florida.
A supporter uses a mobile phone to take a picture during a rally for U.S. President Donald Trump on Oct. 23, 2020 in Pensacola, Florida. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Looking over the electoral map ahead of next week’s U.S. presidential election, Democrats are excited about a youth Latino bulge in Florida. A new Telemundo poll released today shows Democratic nominee Joe Biden polling slightly ahead among Florida Latinos, with a nine-point lead among Latinos under 50. But in a state dominated by conservative Cuban Americans, that’s due largely to support from more liberal communities such as Puerto Ricans in Central Florida.

When it comes to the largest Latino community in South Florida, President Donald Trump is well ahead: 71 percent of Cuban Americans of all ages across Florida intend to vote for the president. And despite years of talk that generational change would turn younger Cubans into a less-reliable Republican vote, that doesn’t seem to be the case. That’s a big deal: An estimated 440,000 Cuban American voters in Florida are under 40, over four times Trump’s margin of victory in the state four years ago.

Even voters who are too young to remember the Cuban Revolution remain wary of Fidel Castro’s legacy and worry some brand of socialist politics might reach Florida’s shores if Biden wins next week.

“There is this whole narrative that Cuban American youth are more liberal than their parents because they aren’t beholden to the politics of the Cold War,” said Geraldo Cadava, the author of The Hispanic Republican, a history of Latino conservatism in the United States. “But there are nuances to that.”

In comparison to other Latino groups, Cuban Americans have a unique immigration story. While Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, witnessed a surge in support from Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans during the Democratic primaries, acquiring the nickname “Tío Bernie,” and Biden has a lead with Latinos overall, some Cuban Americans have emphatically refused to support even centrist Democrats like Biden—and are turning even more toward Trump.

Ahead of the 2016 election, only 21 percent of Cuban American voters under 40 in Miami-Dade County said they would vote for Trump, according to that year’s Florida International University (FIU) Cuba Poll. This year, that number is surging: The 2020 FIU Cuba Poll shows 55 percent intend to do so, and an even higher percentage approve of Trump’s handling of key issues such as immigration and health care.

Even though younger Cuban Americans didn’t witness socialism first hand, their upbringing was still “shaped by the trauma of exile,” Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at FIU, said.

“They feel very strongly about not offending their parents and grandparents by traveling to Cuba, or by taking certain stances about Cuba,” Duany, a Cuban-born anthropologist, said. “It’s a personal and a family issue, not just an abstract question. They’re very aware that they’re here precisely because their families were forced to come to the United States because of the Cuban Revolution.”

Though the divides seem clear, in a year in which a Latino becomes eligible to vote every 30 seconds in the United States, younger voters have turned digital spaces like the video-sharing app TikTok into electoral battlegrounds. Many Cuban American millennials and Gen Zers are taking to the platform to mock their older conservative relatives, given persistent homophobia and racism within the Cuban American community in recent years.

The latest viral phenomenon is a recent Trump Spanish-language campaign jingle that features a salsa trio singing, “Yo voy a votar por Donald Trump” (“I will vote for Donald Trump”). The audio clip has appeared in 6,000 videos on TikTok that have racked up hundreds of thousands of hits combined. An overwhelming majority of these videos feature young Latinos mocking their Trump supporter relatives, a way Cuban American liberals have found to engage politically with fellow progressives in their overwhelmingly conservative community.

“I have no choice but to talk about politics since my whole entity within this society is political,” said Carlos Fariñas, a 27-year-old queer content creator and South Florida native whose videos on TikTok have been liked by more than 350,000 people.

Instead of riding the social media wave and trying to increase the margin among young voters, Democrats seem intent on chipping away at the Cold War narratives that still motivate especially older Cuban Americans. A recent Spanish-language ad paid by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg features a 78-year-old Bay of Pigs veteran arguing that “we either vote for Biden or we bury democracy in this country.”

To the extent that Biden has addressed the Cuban American community, it’s essentially been to rehash the Obama administration’s effort to overturn more than a half-century of failed U.S. policies and encourage a democratic opening on the island. During a campaign rally in Miami earlier this month, Biden recognized Cuban Americans as the “best ambassadors for freedom in Cuba.”

“We also need a new Cuba policy,” the Democratic candidate said. “Empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future is central to a national security interest in the United States.”

But the online electoral fight within the Cuban American community is also taking place against a backdrop of election-related disinformation. Last month, a Politico investigation indicated that Facebook and WhatsApp disinformation campaigns were targeting Spanish-speaking communities in South Florida to spread conspiracy theories and other false information. In September, the Miami Herald apologized for running a racist and homophobic insert for eight months alongside its Spanish-language version El Nuevo Herald. And Miami-based Radio Caracol, a station of Colombia’s largest radio network, gave airtime to a conspiracy theorist who said a Biden victory would lead to a dictatorship led by “Jews and Blacks.”

Many of those campaigns—which go beyond the level of disinformation seen in Florida in 2016—go almost unnoticed because there is a significant overlap between South Florida’s immigrant community and conservatives back home in Latin America, said Eduardo Gamarra, a specialist in Latino public opinion at FIU. “So some of the racist and anti-Semitic messaging is not foreign to them,” he added.

This behavior is precisely what has motivated many young Cuban Americans to engage politically online, calling out conservative relatives “for their privilege.”

“I remember my first viral video was of my frustration toward racist, homophobic, Cuban white supremacists who are relatives of mine,” said Fariñas, who is half Cuban and half Colombian. “I pretty much talked about the hypocrisy and manipulation within the Cuban community. There’s clearly a problem, and it needs to be called out.”

Augusta Saraiva is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @gutavsaraiva

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