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What's behind Trump's gain in Cuban American support?

"Some of that is to be expected, because whoever is in the White House is in the driver's seat in terms of the message," says historian Michael Bustamante.
Supporters of President Donald Trump rally outside a Latinos for Trump Roundtable event at Trump National Doral Miami golf resort in Doral, Fla., on Sept. 25.Marco Bello / AFP - Getty Images

MIAMI — After abstaining in the 2016 elections, Cuban American Bárbaro Lam says, he will vote for President Donald Trump on Nov. 3.

Lam, 56, said he didn't like any of the candidates in 2016 and thought people were making a mistake by voting for Trump. Four years later, Lam said, his air conditioning business has grown, and Trump has been consistent.

More importantly, Lam said, the Democratic Party has veered too far to the left and is no longer the same party that existed 10 years ago. He worries about the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and what kind of influence they and other more liberal folks could have on a Joe Biden presidency.

Lam, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1995, said that when he hears proposals for programs like "free health care" (which isn't Biden's health care platform; he's touting an expansion of Obamacare), "Cubans like me who were born and raised under communism get scared. It may sound exaggerated to some, but this was part of our indoctrination."

In 2016, about half the Cuban American vote in Florida went to Trump. But the numbers have increased, according to recent polls. A Florida International University poll (FIU) released Friday found that 59 percent of South Florida Cuban Americans say they will vote for Trump.

The boost is coming primarily from those who came from Cuba in the last three decades, as opposed to Cuban Americans born in the U.S., who lean Democratic and now outnumber exiles or those who came from Cuba before 1980, who are reliable Republican voters.

According to the FIU poll, 53 percent of Cubans are registered as Republicans, but among those who arrived between 2010 and 2015, 76 percent say they are registered Republicans.

Trump has campaigned heavily in Florida since he was elected, traveling to the state multiple times for rallies and events while Democratic candidates were busy campaigning in the primaries. As he did during the first presidential debate, he has made false accusations that Biden backs "socialism" and "communism" the centerpiece of his campaign — and nowhere else in the country does it hit a nerve quite like in Miami.

Lam said Cubans like him are more sensitive to the messaging because many experienced the Special Period, a time of extreme deprivation in Cuba, when the Soviet Union collapsed and subsidies dried up, creating hunger and causing people to lose weight.

Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of history at Florida International University who closely monitors the Cuban American community, said the increase in Trump's support has multiple causes, starting with the Trump administration's swing in favor of hard-line policies toward Cuba, which appeals to some older Cuban voters.

"Some of that is to be expected, because whoever is in the White House is in the driver's seat in terms of the message," Bustamante said, adding that what happens in Cuba also matters. Around 2016, internal economic reforms in Cuba began to slow, leading some in Miami to become more open to a hard-line message. "It's kind of emotional, but it's also a result of frustration with the slow pace of reform on the island," he said.

Although Cuban Americans are by no means a monolith and the subject of Cuba may not be top of mind for all voters, a candidate's approach to Cuba certainly shapes some voters' perceptions, particularly against the backdrop of Trump's incessant anti-socialist attacks.

Trump has taken a hard-line approach to Cuba and tightened the U.S. embargo, imposing harsh travel and remittance restrictions. The approach gives Cuban Americans the impression that he is tough on socialism — even though he applied in 2008 to register his Trump trademark in Cuba to do business in Cuba, The Miami Herald reported.

According to the FIU poll, 66 percent of Cuban-Americans in South Florida back Trump's policy on Cuba and 60 percent support a continuation of the embargo, an uptick from previous years.

Biden said in April that if he is elected, he will return to the Obama-era policy of greater engagement with Cuba, although he said he would insist that Cuba keep the "commitments they had made" during the Obama administration to make some changes on the island. Since then, he hasn't repeated that he would return to the Obama policy, but he has said he would reverse Trump's travel restrictions and the limits on remittances that Cuban Americans can send their families. Yet the Cuban Americans who want hard-line policies still believe Biden will pick up where President Barack Obama left off.

A resurgence of the 'socialist' rhetoric

Bustamante said he wonders whether the strong resurgence of the "socialism" rhetoric is a product of this moment or whether it signals a more permanent shift back to an older style of Miami politics.

Democrats have always been equated with communism or socialism to some degree in Miami, especially in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was around and Central American countries were roiled by civil wars against leftist insurgencies.

By the 1990s, the messaging had dissipated, only to return at the end of the 2018 midterm elections with radio ads equating Florida Democratic candidates with socialism. Since then, it has reached a level never seen before. The Trump campaign and Florida Republicans routinely equate Biden with socialism and claim that he is a "puppet of the Castrochavistas who control his party," a reference to the late Fidel Castro of Cuba as well as his brother Raúl and the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

The messaging has been amplified by disinformation in Spanish about Democrats and Biden that is widely shared on social media.

There is also the role of popular local media personalities like Alex Otaola, who came from Cuba in 2003, where he had been an actor in radio programs. Otaola supports Trump during his Facebook Live show, which includes entertainment and news about Cuba and which is popular among more recent arrivals and, to some extent, in Cuba.

Cubanos con Biden

But just as some have found common ground with Trump, others, including more high-profile Cuban American Republicans, have defected from his camp.

Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, hasn't yet decided whether he will support Biden, but he said "Trump doesn't meet" the basic standard for a president, citing his lack of morals and his "turpitude."

Cardenas suggested that if the Democrats want to make a dent in the Cuban American percentages, they have to be more active. He said part of the reason the socialism messaging went away in the 1990s was President Bill Clinton's efforts in South Florida, meeting with Cuban Americans, including the prominent exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa.

The Biden campaign has stepped up its efforts to woo Cuban voters. "The false socialism narrative has struck a nerve, but there could be nothing further from the truth," said Felice Gorordo, a Cuban American who is national co-chair of Catholics for Biden and a member of Biden's national finance committee. "He has been an advocate and champion for human rights in Latin America and around the world."

The campaign has released a dozen Spanish-language ads in Florida, most of them focused on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and defining Biden, who may still be unknown to some voters.

One of the largest Latino groups backing Biden on Facebook is Cubanos con Biden, with about 13,000 members. They staff phone banks twice a week as Cubans reach out to other Cubans.

Since the Florida primary, there have been Biden rallies and caravans almost every weekend, and they have grown to several hundred vehicles, Gorordo said.

The Biden campaign is banking on Trump's response to the pandemic and the threat to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The Miami suburb of Hialeah, a bastion of Cuban American voters, was at the center of the pandemic in Florida this summer. It also has one of the highest rates of Obamacare enrollment.

Maximo Fernandez, 46, a handyman who came from Cuba in 2001 and became a citizen last year, said he plans to vote for Biden.

"One of the most important issues for me is health care and how Hispanics are treated," he said. Although he supports Trump's approach to Cuba, he said it's not enough to re-elect him.

"I like the pressure he has placed on the Cuban government, but sometimes it's the average Cuban that is most affected," he said.

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