Opinion: How Democrats can win back the Cuban-American vote

I had read about pro-Trump caravans, but I had never witnessed them. And I especially had never seen one in my hometown, Miami, a city known as a Democratic enclave that routinely delivers a large portion of Democratic votes in the swing state of Florida.
I was well aware that Cubans and Cuban-Americans were leaning toward the GOP almost as strongly as ever, after polling showed a brief shift to the left in 2013, and I had even seen the effects of Trump’s misinformation in my own abuela. But seeing the sweeping fanaticism in person felt like a nightmare come to life. I realized that Trump’s incessant attacks on Democrats as socialists had actually worked beyond the Latinx community and, even worse, had the power to generate a swell of red energy in a blue city.

As it seemed the deluge of MAGA flags would never end, we made a sharp turn to get away from the chaos. I saw one Biden sign and tried to reassure myself that maybe Biden supporters just aren’t showy like that.

Two days later, on election night, my greatest fear proved to be true: According to exit polls, Trump had won 56% of the Cuban vote, and 46% of Latinos writ large, in Florida. In Miami-Dade County, where Hillary Clinton won by 29 percentage points in 2016, Trump cut his loss by more than half in 2020, losing by only seven points.

It was a devastating blow that all but handed Florida to Trump, and it proved that his red-baiting tactics had been effective.

Even worse, fervent support for Trump resonated through down-ballot races, as two House Democrats from South Florida lost to their Republican challengers. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the first South American-born member of Congress, lost to Carlos Gimenez, the Miami-Dade County Mayor who supported the President’s refusal to concede, and Rep. Donna Shalala lost to former journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, who has made calls to create an anti-socialist conservative “squad” in Congress.
Also unseated was Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who represented a Miami district and lost to Republican challenger and Latinas for Trump founder Ileana Garcia by a razor thin margin of just 34 votes after a tight recount. (Florida prosecutors are now looking into the mysterious entry into the race by a no-party candidate who has the same last name as Rodriguez.)

Each race involved unique issues, but there was one constant: the Republican candidate’s exploitation of the Latino community’s trauma at the hands of socialism, coupled with a blind support of Trump.

As my mother drove away from the Trump caravan that Sunday afternoon, her anger was palpable. She recalled the first years she spent in Miami in the 1970s as a Cuban refugee. Her family had just moved to an affordable house in Homestead and they were among the few Latino, let alone Cuban, families in the mostly rural area. She was routinely left alone while her parents worked at a factory to support their new lives. She remembers seeing, on a dark night, a blazing cross atop a nearby grassy hill with a car set on fire next to it. Later, they would learn it was their Cuban neighbor’s stolen car. At only 14 years old, my mother didn’t understand the symbolism. Years later she would realize it was most likely members of the Ku Klux Klan, who were signaling their presence.

What the 2020 election reveals about Latino voters
As she recounted this story, she couldn’t understand how Cubans today could praise a man endorsed by the KKK’s former leader. (Trump publicly disavowed David Duke’s endorsement, after being criticized publicly for seeming to resist doing so.) When the disheartening presidential-election results came in, I couldn’t even be surprised when comedian Jaboukie Young-White tweeted, “The KKKubans came out in full force.” Meanwhile, Rep. Gimenez’s victory speech called his victory “a rejection … of the evils of socialism and communism.” My mother, who was watching the results in real time at home, lamented, “I’m ashamed to be Cuban.” While Cubans are not a monolith, I couldn’t blame her.
The effectiveness of Trump’s anti-socialist propaganda was heightened locally by some Spanish-language media, and it undoubtedly trickled into our local elections. The three Republican challengers ran red-baiting campaigns, in some cases explicitly calling their opponents socialists.

The question remains: how will Democrats address this gross misnomer?

Daniela Ferrera, co-founder of the group Cubanos con Biden, says she had been warning the Biden campaign of the effectiveness of the socialist rhetoric for months, to no avail. At one point, Cubanos con Biden and other Latino groups such as Venezolanos con Biden were conducting radio-monitoring programs, in which they listened to Spanish-language radio stations and would call in to try and counter the falsehoods they were hearing. They reached out to the Biden campaign for talking points to help get their message out, but it always fell on deaf ears, Ferrera says.

'There's no such thing as the Latino vote.' 2020 results reveal a complex electorate

“[The Biden campaign] dropped the ball. We had been pretty much screaming at the top of our lungs about what was going on in South Florida, not just with the Cuban American community, because what people don’t realize is that the socialism and communism messaging doesn’t just have an impact on Cuban Americans, it has an impact even outside of the Latino community. We saw that messaging was effective,” Ferrera said.

The campaign simply didn’t take the attacks seriously, Ferrera says, because of how absurd the claims were. But, when a candidate does not spend enough time in a community, constituents are prone to believe a narrative that exploits their trauma.

“Frankly, the campaign didn’t do enough to communicate to our community who Joe Biden is and what his values are,” Ferrera said.

During early voting in Miami-Dade County, Ferrera was told that she shouldn’t bother going to Westchester or Hialeah (two predominantly working class Latino neighborhoods) because those are places “where we didn’t have many [Democrat] voters,” Ferrera said.

Democrats assess efforts to engage Latinos after mixed election results
The Biden campaign may think the Cuban-American vote is far gone, but it’s not. The very community that mostly voted for Trump also voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 — what some would call progressive. The county also elected Daniella Levine Cava, a progressive Democrat, to replace Gimenez as mayor.

Beyond triggering language about a place where none of them live anymore — Cuba — Cuban-Americans benefit from Democratic policies. By voting for Trump, working-class people in Miami are voting against their own interests. The Democratic Party needs to do the challenging work of going into these communities and communicating what their party stands for.

“It was very frustrating that my community was just an afterthought, and I felt like the campaign really gave up on us,” Ferrera said. “But I will never give up on this community.”

Even as Trump refused to concede and questioned the legitimacy of the election, Miami’s right-wing politicians egged him on, further driving a divide between truth and fiction in our already fragile and vulnerable community. Segments of Spanish-language radio have been all but pro-Trump calls to arms, airing conversations about how the election was purportedly fraudulent. Trump supporters have protested the election results, echoing Trump’s incessant tweets. They call the election stolen and demand every legal vote be counted (which, of course, is what should happen). In attendance have been members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, whose chairman is Cuban-American.

After days of minimal sleep and frantic refreshing of the election map dashboard, on the Saturday after the election, my mother decided to turn on the TV to see if there was an update. Coincidentally, at that very moment, outlets had just called Pennsylvania for Biden. The house erupted in pride and joy — a joy that I saw spill out onto the streets of downtown Miami. Cubanos con Biden organizers mobilized supporters to the iconic Freedom Tower to celebrate at the site that welcomed the first waves of Cuban refugees decades ago. The group danced salsa, banged on pots and sang “echa pa ya” (go away).

For a brief moment, Miami Democrats were vindicated, showing the world that we’re here to stay. All we need is to be heard.


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