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Biden, Trump step up appeals to Colombian American voters

The campaigns are focused on the large Latino voting bloc in Florida as international political endorsements and Marxist conspiracy theories make their way to Miami.
Image: FILE PHOTO: A voting booth is seen at a polling center inside a fire station in the Coral Gables neighbourhood during the Democratic presidential primary election in Miami
A voting booth at a polling center in Miami.Marco Bello / Reuters file

MIAMI — Inching closer to Election Day, the Trump and the Biden campaigns are delving deep into Colombia's issues as they vie for the Colombian American vote in the largest battleground state of Florida.

Colombian Americans number over 1 million nationally, according to Pew Research, and about 400,000 live in Florida. An estimated 200,000 are eligible voters, making them one of the largest Latino voting groups in the state behind Cubans and Puerto Ricans, according to Florida International University professor Eduardo Gamarra.

Although most Colombian Americans are Democrats, support for Trump among Florida Colombians has grown by about 5 to 8 percent, according to Gamarra, who does polling through Adsmovil.

“This is an election determined by margins," said Gamarra about the Florida vote. "Are there going to be more Colombians on Nov. 3 voting Republican? Yes. Should that worry the Democrats? Yes,” he said.

Although experts agree most Colombians vote based on domestic policy, events and politicians in their home country are dominating the conversation and the campaign appeals.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump congratulated former conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for his release from house arrest, calling him a “hero," in what Trump called the fight against Castro-Chavismo, referring to the late socialist leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. It’s a narrative Trump has been pushing among Florida Latinos.

Uribe was under house arrest since August for possible witness tampering linked to accusations he had ties to right-wing paramilitaries.

Uribe, a divisive figure among Colombians, has ardent support among some voters in Florida. To some, he saved Colombia from a bloody civil war involving Marxist rebels, while others view him as a human rights abuser.

A Miami-Dade County commission recently approved the naming of a street after Uribe, after a group of Colombian Americans urged commissioners to honor him.

The Trump campaign has also seized on a comment over the summer by Gustavo Petro, a Colombian ex-guerrilla member and leftist politician, who caused an uproar when he stated in an interview that if he could, he would vote for Biden. On Monday the Trump campaign released a digital ad with video of Petro saying he would vote for Biden and, like in previous television ads, compared Biden to Petro and other leftist leaders.

Last week, Biden wrote an op-ed in one of Colombia’s leading newspapers, El Tiempo, where he denounced the 1985 attack of the country's Palace of Justice by leftist M-19 guerrillas that left 115 people dead, including 11 Supreme Court justices.

“The injustice of gunning down judges with impunity,” Biden wrote. “The cowardice of those criminals who feared extradition to face trial in the United States.”

In the piece, Biden touted his support for Plan Colombia, a $10 billion aid package aimed at fighting drug trafficking and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Colombian-born Juan S. Gonzalez, who served as a special adviser to Biden and as deputy assistant secretary of state, said that “people who know the history of U.S.-Colombia relations understand that Joe Biden has an excellent record on Colombia and he has been a champion of US-Colombia relations."

Gonzalez accompanied Biden on multiple trips to Colombia during the latter's time as vice president.

He said Trump uses the socialism argument to scare voters because “he does not have a plan and does not want to talk about how he has failed to govern.”

“There are Republicans who know they cannot win this election by debating the facts or the issues," Gonzalez said. "Therefore, they are in the active disinformation campaign to call into question the vice president’s record.”

Biden has an active “Colombianos con Biden” group that does phone banking to Colombian voters, holds Zoom meetings with the community, and participates in caravans on weekends, something that has become increasingly popular in South Florida.

Trump has been using the power of the incumbency in his appeal to voters. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien unveiled the administration’s Western Hemisphere strategy at a gathering of Colombian Americans in South Florida in August before meeting with President Iván Duque, an Uribe protégé, in Colombia.

From Colombia, appeals, disinformation aimed at U.S. voters

Part of the increase in support for Trump could stem from the influence of some conservative elected officials in Colombia who have been endorsing Trump and casting Biden as a socialist. Senator María Fernanda Cabal recently posted on Instagram that Obama, Biden and former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos “left us an inheritance of mafia, war, and drugs,” referring to the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to end five decades of a bloody civil war.

Obama Secretary of State John Kerry met with the FARC and Colombian officials in Cuba, where the negotiations were taking place, and urged them to sign the peace accord, though the Obama administration kept the FARC in the U.S. list of terrorists.

The peace accord is a thorny issue on which Colombians remain divided. Uribe, whose father was killed by rebels, and other conservative politicians remain opposed to the peace accord.

U.S. Rep Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who is of Colombian descent, recently called out on Twitter a legislator in Colombia, Juan David Vélez, for endorsing in a 2018 video a number of Republican candidates who were running for office in Florida and encouraging U.S. Colombians to vote for them.

Colombian American Democratic strategist Evelyn Pérez-Verdía said “they are destroying the bipartisanship that exists between Colombia and the United States for extreme right interests between countries.”

There is also a campaign of disinformation, that favors Trump and casts Democrats as socialists, at times originating in Colombia and making its way to Florida where it’s widely disseminated on social media and WhatsApp groups popular among Colombians in Florida.

Pérez-Verdía worries support for Trump could grow because of the disinformation in Spanish, a topic she follows closely. “But Rep. Gallego and the media calling it out has made Colombians suspicious.”

Aside from support for Uribe, some Colombians cited other issues to tout their support for Trump. Republican entrepreneur and former mayoral candidate Alfred Santamaría spoke of his opposition to abortion and what he called the "riots and the looting" of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Gamarra, the Florida International University professor, said parallel events began taking place two or three months ago and are having an effect on Colombian voters. Conservative groups in the Colombian diaspora began to make some noise and get noticed by the Trump administration. The jailing of Uribe gave strength to a conspiracy theory that Marxists in Colombia are trying to keep Uribe in jail. Petro’s comments about voting for Biden made the conspiracy theory international in scope.

That fell very neatly into the narrative that links Biden to an "international communist conspiracy," Gamarra said. " It didn’t have the added benefit of being true, but it mobilized people here."

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