Despite a historic distrust of the left fueled by Republican messaging, many members of the Cuban American electorate in FL are leaving the party of Donald Trump.
Sofia Hidalgo was driving down Miami’s famed Cuban hotspot, the vibrant Calle Ocho, when pro-Trump motorists blocked her car. “I was shaking in my car just thinking that they could so easily hurt me,” the 18-year-old said.
Hidalgo, a first-time Cuban American voter, was participating in a pro-Biden car caravan across Miami, with thousands of other Biden supporters. Cubanos Con Biden (Cubans with Biden), a grassroots organization based in Miami and committed to creating a strong presence of Cuban American Democrats, was one of the organizers of the event which was called the “Blue Tsunami.”
A “Trump Victory” caravan with the same end destination, its cars decked out in countless MAGA flags, began to push its way into the Biden line of cars. For Hidalgo, it was the beginning of a frightening experience.
What began to play out on Calle Ocho just over a week ago gives an indication of the schisms in Florida’s Cuban American community, long thought to be predictably Republican. But that is not true now, and the conflicts within that community played out dramatically as the two caravans intersected.
Florida, the most populous swing state, is crucial to winning the presidential election. As of this year, 2.5 million Latinx voters are registered to vote, a 30 percent increase since 2016. They make up 17 percent of the state’s potential electorate. Among Latinx groups, Cuban Americans are the largest eligible voter population (29 percent) and could very well help decide the election in Florida.
But the competition for votes took a scary turn for Hidalgo. “I was in one of the cars that got stuck inside of this Trump caravan,” Hidalgo said. “A few minutes in, it’s still going fine. People flipping me off, yelling — the usual, but nothing I can’t handle. And then it started picking up.”
As Hidalgo drove her bright red compact car — which she painted with colorful pro-Biden slogans such as “100% Anti-Communista, 100% Anti-Racista, 100% Anti-Fascista, 100% Con Biden” in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month — a motorcyclist and the drivers of a couple of SUVs cut her off from the rest of the caravan, surrounding her and pushing her to the edge of the street.
Enrique Tarrio, head of Proud Boys and Latinos for Trump, is patrolling cars with Biden signs in Miami. pic.twitter.com/hiG0XmI0Ir
— Sofia Hidalgo (@sofiamhidalgo) October 18, 2020
Because of the length of the caravan, she found herself an easy target for pro-Trump protesters. “They literally isolated me from everybody else,” she said. “When people are like, aggressively threatening you, they have you isolated. Boxed in on all sides with massive Jeeps, and massive SUVs, and you’re in this tiny car alone and you’re a female and you’re just literally encircled… [I feared] that they were actually going to physically harm me. I had already been threatened that I was going to get shot.”
There were police at the event but, Hidalgo said, “They’re not doing anything. They’re talking with the Proud Boys. … I’m surprised that nobody got hurt because they were so close to the edge of physical violence.”
Enrique Tarrio, the international chairman of the far-right, white supremacist hate group the Proud Boys, was patrolling Brickell Avenue in Downtown Miami, pointing out cars with pro-Biden signs. A Cuban American from Miami, Tarrio also works as state director for Latinos for Trump. Emblazoned on his Proud Boys-branded t-shirt were the president’s own words to the group: “Stand Back, Stand By.”
Whether Tarrio was there just to scope out the caravan or to tip off the other Proud Boys infiltrating the caravan was unclear to the Biden supporters there. “It was like he was almost making this mental note of who was in what car. And this guy was unfazed. He was just walking up and down as if he owned the street,” said a pro-Biden organizer, who prefers to go unnamed for fear of harassment.
Cuban American Biden supporters faced targeted harassment as the two caravans intersected. “People were telling us, you know, ‘Go back to Cuba, because you love communism!’, ‘Oh, go back to work! You guys are a bunch of freeloaders, socialists,’ like all of these things,” said the organizer.
For many who regularly participate in “con Biden” caravans, such pro-Trump hostility is common.
Mike Rivero, an organizer with Cubanos Con Biden, believes that an important component of grassroots campaigns should be encouraging dialogue with people who disagree. He said that despite his group’s willingness to engage in dialogue with Cuban American Trump supporters, they are often met with insults, vitriol, or simply evasive answers.
“It’s like a broken record, it’s extremely frustrating,” Rivero said of all the failed attempts to reach out that have been met only with bellows of “Trump 2020.”
“So when you’re confronted with people that don’t want to converse, they just want to yell at you and curse at you, it’s very disheartening,” he said. “But it’s just a reminder of what this kind of propaganda and gaslighting does to divide communities, and it’s more the reason why we need to keep fighting.”
Generational Trauma, Republican Gaslighting, and the Forging of the Cuban American “Monolith”
Cuban Americans have been a solidly Republican voting bloc for decades. Large numbers of mostly upper-middle class and wealthy Cubans, who left Cuba in the early 1960s after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, already had a distrust of the left. That distrust was only fueled further by President John F. Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion to oust Fidel Castro. But it was President Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party of the ‘80s who decided to capitalize on this distrust and the trauma of refugees, mobilizing Cuban American communities to forge a Republican majority among them, according to Guillermo Grenier, a Cuban American sociology professor at Florida International University, who specializes in Cuban American ideology in the greater Miami area.
In Florida, for example, 58 percent of Cuban Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — a sharp contrast to the 35 percent of the state’s other Latinx voters who voted for him. The argument that the Democratic party is similar to Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba also has deep roots spanning back to the Republican rhetoric and propaganda of the Reagan administration.
Prior to the ‘80s, during the first waves of Cuban migration to the United States in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, the Cuban American electorate was split fifty-fifty between both parties — a split in line with the general American electorate, according to Grenier.
Pre-Reagan, there was also less attention paid to mobilizing Cuban Americans from either party, meaning that there was room for more variation in ideology and fewer party hardliners.
“Reagan turned that around and established a structure where it really meant something to be a Republican minority in Miami,” said Grenier. “I can put it real directly and say Ronald Reagan made the Cubans his bitch.”
Throughout, Cuban Americans have stayed mostly loyal to the Grand Old Party, a relationship nurtured by the GOP’s own commitment to labeling political opponents as “communist” or “socialist.”
“That’s how you know that the Republicans’ tactics and manipulating the Cuban vote has worked so well for them, because they turned the voting bloc into a monolith,” said Hidalgo. “It’s a way to stay in power, and they’re so successful at it because they know the buzzwords. They know if they call anybody who disagrees with them a communist and a socialist, that they’ll have the Cubans on their side. It doesn’t even matter what their policy is, they could get up on stage and say, I’m going to repeal Medicare, Social Security, and Obamacare, which you all benefit from, but Joe Biden’s a communist [so they will get elected].”
That tactic has worked for a long time. Hialeah, a city in Miami-Dade County, is home to the largest percentage of Cuban Americans in the country. It is also the city with the highest Obamacare enrollment in the country. Despite this, and despite the fact that Trump’s healthcare platform largely focused on repealing Obamacare, Trump virtually tied Hillary Clinton in Hialeah in 2016. (Clinton beat Trump in the entirety of Miami-Dade County by 30 points.)
For Cuban American communities, the deep-rooted generational trauma caused by fleeing an oppressive and violent regime manifests itself in the political rhetoric that has the most impact.
“A lot of our families have fled socialist and communist dictatorships, been harassed, been killed, have lost businesses, livelihoods — that’s a big trauma. And it’s something that people live with every day,” said Rivero. When the Republican party makes claims like, “‘Joe Biden is a communist, he’s allied with the Castros and he’s gonna bring communism to the USA,’ we know that’s not true … It’s manipulation of the traumas that our communities have. And, quite frankly, it’s un-American.”
Others agree. “We’re sick and tired of Trump and the Republicans exploiting the trauma of our communities by using the socialism and communism boogeyman when we know that Joe Biden is not a socialist. He’s not a communist. He’s a centrist. He’s a Democrat,” said Daniela Ferrera, a co-founder of Cubanos Con Biden and a Cuban American who escaped the country’s communist dictatorship with her family, by boat, at the age of three. “He cares about our democracy and our American values, and we’re not going to be manipulated. We’re not going to be exploited, and we’re proud to support our communities standing behind Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”
The Trump Era, Hardliners, and a Move Away From the GOP
The day that Donald Trump rode down a golden escalator to announce his bid for president, Ferrera, a long-time Republican organizer and campaigner, decided that she could not remain a member of the GOP.
“To me at that point in time the Republican Party was dead. The party of Lincoln, the party of Reagan, was now the party of Donald Trump,” Ferrera said. “I wanted no association with that because I believe that diversity is our strength, and I don’t even feel that Donald Trump is a Republican… He’s an opportunist. He is in this for himself to enrich himself, his family, and his allies. Fundamentally, he doesn’t care about American values. He doesn’t care about our democracy or democratic institutions.”
Shortly after Trump won the 2016 Florida primary, Ferrera and her formerly Republican boyfriend took to symbolism to show their grievances with Trump and his unfounded criticisms of Mexican American and other immigrant communities as “drug dealers” and “rapists.”
They both took their Republican voter registration cards and set them ablaze, allowing their party registration to die just as they believed their party did.
“I will stand with my community, my Latinos, my immigrants, and we will stand firmly against Donald Trump in every way, and make sure that we elect good Democrats,” she said. “I have always been unwavering in that we have to choose country over party. And that’s what the burning of the voter registration card meant: I was picking my country over my political party.”
In the video Ferrera posted online of the card-burning, she urged other former-Republicans and Cuban Americans like herself to commit as never-Trumpers. While she knows it wasn’t enough — Trump was still elected — there has been increasing Democratic support among the Cuban American community in Florida.
While that has been in part driven by prominent Cuban American Democrats like Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Alex Penelas or by community organizations like Cubanos Con Biden, it has also been spurred on by other Cuban Americans’ realizations of the parallels between Trump and Castro.
“I’m a staunch anti-socialist, I think Latin American socialism is brutal and leads to dictatorship,” said Carmen Peláez, a Cuban American playwright. “It destroyed Cuba, separated families, depended on nationalism, and tricked people into supporting [Castro]. It’s just like Trump now. [Trump’s rhetoric,] that’s all Fidel-speak to me. When I see Trump speak I see Fidel. … Trump is like a dollar store Fidel.”
Peláez points to Trump’s family separation policy, his ceaseless attacks on the free press, his nationalistic and white supremacist rhetoric, and his use of violent police force against peaceful protesters as parallels to policies of Castro.
“My whole life, I’ve grown up learning how bad communism and socialism is,” says Christopher Duyos, a college student from Miami whose father migrated from Cuba and whose Cuban American mother grew up in Hialeah. “As I’ve grown up and left the bubble of South Miami and very right-leaning Cubans, I learned … that Cuba [didn’t only have] socialism as the problem.”
Duyos said he learned this all from his grandfather, who himself was a member of the Cuban Navy before growing frustrated with Castro’s oppressive handling of the post-revolutionary era. “He really taught me that it was authoritarianism, not democracy, that belittles the press and jokes about a third term. [Trump does a lot of] authoritarian things that put him a lot closer to the Castros and [Nicolas] Maduros [of Venezuela].”
Other Cuban Americans see Trump’s “America First” rhetoric as a positive selling point.
Dr. Nestor Valeron, an emergency medical physician who himself was able to flee Cuba by boat in 1995 at the age of 28, is one of these Cuban Americans. Valeron was born in 1967 amidst growing revolutionary fervor and anti-US sentiments in Cuba. He was originally a believer in the revolution, but while he was in medical school in Cuba, his mother passed away. He saw firsthand the poverty and scarcity that plagued Cuba, as well as the political repression. It was then that Valeron chose to stray from what he called the Communist Party’s “siren songs.”
Now, his experiences mean that he is staunchly “anti-communist and anti-socialist by heart,” and thus, supports Trump over Biden.
He disagrees with what he sees as a system where “the more I work the more I have to be taxed and punished for working hard in order for the government to pay for programs.” Valeron said, “I actually donate to organizations for people in need, but I don’t want the empty promises of free healthcare and free university. There’s no way you sustain that unless you take it from [the] back of hard working Americans, that’s my belief.”
On Trump, specifically, he said, “His idea of America is the idea that attracts most people to this country: you work hard [and] we’re gonna take care of you as an American. I’m an immigrant myself, I never took a cent from the US and have been paying taxes for years.”
Still, Valeron says, he is not registered to any political party, and instead chooses to vote for whichever candidate he believes is best for the “American ideal.”
He also disagrees with Trump’s vitriol (“I wish he kept his mouth shut all the time”) and believes that while Trump may be good to the Cuban community in some ways, he has not kept the promise that every politician makes to the Cuban American community: the end of the Castro regime.
Other Cuban Americans, like Tarrio and Ariel Martinez, the co-founder of Cubans 4 Trump, which was one of the organizing bodies behind the “Trump Victory” caravan, are hardcore right-wingers who make use of far-right rhetoric — anti-left and anti-Black Lives Matter.
“We Cuban Americans, we’ve experienced exactly what some Americans can’t even begin to conceive or perceive and what they laugh at whenever we say socialism,” Martinez said. “We’ve actually lived that. We’re aware of how it starts and we’re aware of where it goes. And we’re aware of how quickly a country, and everything can change. … If this country ever actually headed that direction, I can guarantee you, [a militia movement] would very quickly be started and I myself will be the first one to do it.”
Martinez’s claims, however, are based on the inaccurate perception of the Black Lives Matter movement as a “trained Marxist organization” which is “violent and radical.” Studies have shown that 93 percent of Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful.
Though many older Cuban Americans — like Valeron — are seen as more likely to be pro-Trump, the idea of a generational divide in political ideology is misleading.
“There’s traditionally been that story that older Cubans are Republican, younger Cubans are not, and that’s not the case,” said Rivero from Cubanos Con Biden. “If you look at our Facebook group, the majority of our [14,000 person] population on Facebook is over 55. … It’s all over. It just kind of depends on who’s willing to have that conversation, on who’s kind of stuck in that scare tactic and who’s not. It’s not so much a generational issue, it’s more of a manipulation issue.”
For people like Daniella Sanchez, a Cuban American teenager from Miami caught between a liberal social circle and a conservative home life, it’s also an issue of pressure. She said she feels stress when around either group out of fear that they only want to hear her agree with them. Her friends have left her alone in the past when she’s disagreed with facets of their liberal ideology, and, conversely, when she criticized Mike Pence’s performance at a debate, her family warned her, “No te vuelvas comunista,” or “Don’t become communist.”
In recent years, under the Trump administration, whatever evidence of a generational divide there was among the Cuban American community has faded even more quickly. More and more parents, grandparents, and older Cuban Americans have gone so far as to altogether abandon their long-time loyalty to the Republican Party in favor of the Democrats.
“I have a 70-year-old Cuban American former-Republican father, who not only voted for Hillary in 2016, but is a registered Democrat now and will be voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in November. My mom as well, because of Donald Trump,” said Ferrera of her parents’ politics.
“If the Republican Party wants to track exactly at what point it died and at what point it crumbled and at what point it ceased to be the party that it once was,” she said, “it was when Donald Trump came down that golden escalator and said those things about Mexican Americans and about immigrants. He literally killed the Republican party.”
The Stakes in 2020
Everyone is aware of Florida’s key role in this election. Bush v. Gore is on the minds of many people who are old enough to remember it, when the recount of Florida’s votes was stopped by the Supreme Court and decided the election.
The Cuban Americans at Cubanos Con Biden are aware of this, but also continue to promote what they believe is a message of unity and hope.
“We welcome anybody to join, and [we] show that there is a growing movement of Hispanics who are tired of the manipulation. … And we’re growing in size, because people are attracted to positive energy. And we bring about that positive energy, peaceful and positive energy for Joe Biden. Not just anti-Trump, but for Biden because there’s a difference,” said Hidalgo.
“Joe Biden himself has a career of bringing together Republicans, Independents, and Democrats to actually get things done in this country. That’s what we need if you need to return to normalcy,” said Ferrera. “We need a return to democratic values and an American president that will actually put America first.”
For more of WhoWhatWhy’s work on Protecting Our Vote, see our Student Voter Guide and our series America Decides 2020. You can also find out the darker secrets behind our voting systems in our recently published e-book Is This Any Way to Vote?: Vulnerable Voting Machines and the Mysterious Industry Behind Them by Celeste Katz Marston and Gabriella Novello, available on Amazon now.