Election 2020

Trump’s Anti-Communist Foreign Policy Won Florida Hispanics

Outreach programs and a hard-line attitude persuaded communities with long Republican ties.

Supporters shout and wave flags at President Donald Trump's motorcade
Supporters shout and wave flags as President Donald Trump's motorcade departs after the "Latinos for Trump Roundtable" event at Trump National Doral Miami golf resort in Doral, Florida, on Sept. 25. Marco Bello/AFP via Getty Images

While many scratched their heads over the large number of votes cast by Hispanics in South Florida in favor of reelecting U.S. President Donald Trump, poll-takers who’ve been monitoring those communities were more blasé.

“Democrats should have seen this coming,” said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University (FIU). “It’s not a surprise for anyone who has been paying close attention to what has been happening in the last two to four years.”

Florida’s vote for Trump among Latinos on Tuesday night resulted in the best result a Republican presidential candidate has garnered in 16 years, with nearly twice as many votes from Hispanics in Miami-Dade County than he received in the race against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Emigres from Latin American countries, including Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Colombia, provided a boost for the Republican Party, but Cuban Americans, who represent 37 percent of the county’s population, provided the biggest lift—nearly 200,000 more votes than four years ago, according to precinct data.

Cuban American ties to the Republican Party run deep, going back to bitterness against Democratic President John F. Kennedy for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and gratitude to Republican presidents who stood against Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Experts point to a number of issues to explain why the vote went as it did in Miami-Dade, particularly among Cuban Americans: campaign rhetoric that stoked fears of socialism, emerging Cuban American influencers who hold sway among newer immigrants, a perception that mainstream media is part of the left wing, and a schism over the Black Lives Matter movement.

But the overriding reason for the Republican vote was simple: U.S. policy toward Latin America.

“This area gives all candidates the opportunity to give their foreign-policy pitch,” said Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist at FIU who has overseen university surveys of Cuban American opinion for the past three decades.

Trump never missed an opportunity to make his pitch on Latin America—particularly tied to Cuba and Venezuela—during visits to Miami that resonated with Cuban Americans, who also sided with Trump on domestic issues.

The most recent FIU Cuba Poll shows Trump did well among respondents in terms of his handling of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic. He also scored high on race relations.

Black Lives Matter turned out to be “another one of the polarizing factors,” Grenier said. During protests in Miami, images emerged of activists spray-painting hammer-and-sickle images onto walls and statues or celebrating the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Much media coverage early on also focused on the spurts of violence in the otherwise largely peaceful protests.

Those images were used to link socialism to the movement and helped elevate the outcry against Democrats who publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The interesting and frustrating thing is how the socialist attack line has been used and abused,” Bustamante said. “While the attack was cynical and misleading, I think it worked.”

“It struck a chord in a really unfortunate and very sad way,” he said.

Another key part of the Cuban American political discourse was the rise of social media influencers such as the popular YouTube celebrity Alexander Otaola, who left Cuba in 2003 and uses humor to take swipes at the Cuban government and demand human rights and democratic change. Otaola scored an interview with Trump prior to the 2020 elections with the help of Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who served as his interpreter. The interview went viral as Otaola urged his large audience to beware the “socialist” tendencies exhibited by Democrats.

“That’s the perfect example of how the Republican Party narrative and rhetoric resonates everywhere,” Grenier said. “Cubans are pretty mainstream Republicans. The narrative of the Republican Party is a national narrative.”

A Cuban salsa tune by the Los 3 de la Habana band based in Miami also quickly rose as an anthem among Trump supporters at campaign rallies, who danced and sang to the lyrics “Yo voy a votar por Donald Trump!” (“I’m going to vote for Donald Trump!”)

“Ronald Reagan recruited Cubans to help him with his foreign policy in the fight against the ‘evil empire,’” Grenier said. “Republicans have established a very strong base in the community. Democrats have never done that. They’ve never built a base.”

By the time President Barack Obama took office in 2009, there was a slight shift among some Cuban American voters who wanted closer ties with the island following a tightening of the U.S. embargo on Cuba under President George W. Bush.

Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba—making the announcement simultaneously with then-Cuban leader Raúl Castro. The so-called interests sections in Washington and Havana were upgraded to embassies, travel restrictions and business transactions were eased, and in 2016 Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

However, as warmer relations with Havana blossomed, another exodus was brewing. Cubans in third countries made their way to Central America and journeyed north to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they used the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy to claim asylum upon reaching U.S. soil then win residency after a year and a day, as mandated by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

Just before leaving the Oval Office in January 2017, Obama put an end to that policy, leaving thousands of Cuban migrants stranded in Central America. Many ultimately made it to the United States with help from Cuban American members of Congress, settled in Miami-Dade, and aligned themselves with the Republican Party.

Trump, meanwhile, has consistently adopted a firmer approach to foreign policy.

Soon after assuming office, he pulled U.S. diplomatic personnel out of Cuba after American and Canadian diplomats suffered mysterious health problems. He also drastically reduced staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and has since tightened travel restrictions, clamped down on investments from American companies, limited visas for Cubans to travel to the United States, and placed restrictions on how remittances can be sent to the island.

Even as many Cuban Americans oppose some of those measures, two-thirds broadly support Trump’s tactics aimed at the Communist government, according to the FIU survey.

Win or lose, the Democratic Party has work to do to regain the Florida Hispanic vote, especially among Cuban Americans. “Democrats really need to think like organizers,” Grenier said, “not politicians.”

Mainstream media also has a role to play.

Even though the majority of Cuban Americans likely know that Biden is not a socialist, the attention mainstream media gives that kind of rhetoric amplifies the message, Grenier said.

“Mainstream media has to go back to doing the news,” he said, “not the obsession with the newsmaker.”

Nancy San Martín is a freelance journalist with 30 years of experience that includes extensive coverage in countries across Latin America as a reporter and editor.

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