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'Defcon 1 moment': New Spanish-language conservative network fuels fresh Dem fears over disinfo, Latino outreach

More Latino voters show signs of drifting right, and analysts warn of a new wave of disinformation ahead of elections.
Image: Latino's for Trump
A supporter holds a sign as President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Londonderry, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2020.Charles Krupa / AP

MIAMI — The nation’s first Spanish-language conservative network launches Tuesday morning on satellite radio, opening a new front in the political information wars targeting Latinos in the United States and beyond.

The network, called Americano, arrives during a crucial inflection point in U.S. politics, as more Hispanic voters show signs of drifting right and Democrats continue to sound the alarm about Spanish-language right-wing disinformation on social media and local radio, particularly in Miami, which is also Americano’s home base.

It's scheduled to launch first on SiriusXM radio, then on streaming TV this summer, offering a mix of news programming and commentary. The network has close ties to former President Donald Trump's campaign, as well as to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who now represents the more moderate wing of the Republican Party. Ahead of the Tuesday broadcast, Democrats in Florida raised concerns publicly and privately that the programming would contribute to the spread of misleading claims targeted at Spanish-speakers that skyrocketed during the pandemic and the 2020 campaign.

Americano’s founder and CEO, Ivan Garcia-Hidalgo, bristled at the notion that the privately funded network is going to purvey disinformation or misinformation, and accused Democrats of trying to cancel speech they don’t like.

"They’re scared. And they should be,” Garcia-Hidalgo said of Democrats in an interview. "Democrats took Hispanics for granted for too long, and no one thought to create a home for us in conservative media. There is an appetite for this. You see it on social media. You see it in elections."

Nowhere is that more apparent in the United States than in Miami-Dade County, home to a large and dynamic population with roots throughout Latin America, and a location where Trump dramatically improved his performance between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. The former president’s support was fueled by support from exile communities of those who fled leftist regimes or violence in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia

Aside from tapping into strong anti-socialist sentiment, Trump also broadened his Latino support nationwide with an emphasis on blue-collar, pro-business and anti-Covid lockdown messages that played better with Hispanic voters — from Florida to Philadelphia to Wisconsin to the Texas border

Democrats, meanwhile, have attributed Trump’s gains in part to a deluge of Spanish-language disinformation in the lead-up to the 2020 election, and point out that he nevertheless lost Hispanic voters by double-digit margins nationwide. About a third of Latinos consistently vote Republican nationally.

Pollster Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based consultant who oversaw Barack Obama’s successful national Hispanic outreach, fretted that Americano could be a success — at least politically — even if it doesn’t spread falsehoods or conspiracies.

“For those concerned about the disinformation problem harming Democrats' chances with Hispanics, this is a Defcon 1 moment. We should worry,” Amandi said. “The Democrats’ response to all of this Hispanic outreach from Republicans — whether it's disinformation or conventional campaigning — is to do the bare minimum. Unfortunately, some Democrats are deluding themselves. The ultimate act of disinformation is to pretend that this is not a big problem.” 

Democratic consultant Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, who first sounded the alarm about the proliferation of Spanish-language disinformation and conspiracy theories in WhatsApp chat groups and on websites in 2020, called the launch of the network “concerning” amid what she says is a fresh wave of false or misleading information ahead of the midterm elections.

A native of Colombia, she said she fears her home country is a major source of right-wing conspiratorial social media content that ricochets across borders, fueling the rise of an international organized right.

“Is this new network going to be one more organization, one more group, that just amplifies what we see right now? That’s really concerning,” Pérez-Verdía said.

She said she sees the patterns of 2020 repeating themselves, and that it could have electoral consequences in crucial battlegrounds like Florida, Texas and Arizona this year.

“It’s intensifying. It’s getting worse because it’s getting closer to the election,” said Pérez-Verdía, who also addressed a congressional committee that traveled last month to Miami to examine the issue.

In one example of the extent of the disinformation, one Miami pundit compared Black Lives Matter to satanism. Another falsely suggested that Black Lives Matter's activists were behind the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, which was perpetrated by a mob of Trump’s supporters.

Some of the far-right Miami-area Spanish-language pundits who have come under fire from Democrats for spreading disinformation are not part of Americano's lineup of contributors, however.

"To make this work, they have to be as broad-based as possible. It can’t be what you hear on Miami Cuban radio," said one top Hispanic Republican consultant who studied the market but spoke on condition of anonymity to offer an assessment.

An estimated 41 million Spanish speakers live in the U.S., but Americano’s target audience could be about a fraction of that size or smaller, said the consultant, who estimated Americano’s target audience at 10 million potential viewers and listeners.

“The market is just too small for far-right content in order to monetize it,” the consultant said, adding that Americano will likely rely on its private investors for more than a year before hoping to turn a profit.

Considering the political trends, the seemingly growing appetite for conservative views on social media and the surge of deep-pocketed conservatives funding new media ventures, Americano is in a unique position to carve out a niche, according to Joe Peyronnin, a New York University journalism professor who was vice president of news and information programming from 1998 to 2006 at Spanish-language Telemundo, which is owned by NBC News' parent company, NBCUniversal.

“Never before has there been an opportunity for conservative media to target Spanish-language voters and listeners than now because the technology is there and there is a discomfort out there with politics in general. And whoever is behind this has a real opportunity to capitalize on this discomfort,” Peyronnin said, though he wondered about the commercial viability of the network.

“I don’t know what the play is here or how you define profitable,” he said. “Is it a financial play or an ideological play?” 

Americano’s chief investment officer, Thomas Woolston, said he’s so certain of the finances that he's its top investor — though the network declined to reveal others. He made his fortune after successfully suing eBay in a $30 million lawsuit after an appeals court ruled that the e-commerce giant infringed on Woolston's patent for his “Buy It Now” invention, which enables people to sell items and set prices online.

“When I invented online auctioning, there was nothing like it — there was no Yahoo, there was no Google — it was a completely greenfield opportunity,” said Woolston. “This is the same thing. Spanish-language conservative media is a completely open space. For the first mover, it’s going to be a real advantage.”

Americano’s chief strategy officer, former Trump campaign and White House adviser Michael Caputo, said the company “has investors, not donors.” (Caputo is not related to the author of this article.)

“I’m doing this because it’s going to be a profitable business. I could use some money after the Russia investigation,” he said, joking.

Though never charged with wrongdoing, Caputo was swept up in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election because of his past work involving Kremlin-linked Russian propaganda and his aid to the 2016 Trump campaign. This has led to a whisper campaign among Miami Democrats, who said his involvement with Americano was evidence that it would be a breeding ground for disinformation.

Caputo said Americano revolves around former President Ronald Reagan’s maxim that “Latinos are Republicans. They don’t know it.”

“Hispanics are moving toward us,” Caputo said. “They’re jumping into the Republican pond. And we’re giving them a lily pad to land on. Some will land on the Donald Trump pad. Some on Reagan. Some are for Jeb Bush.”

Joaquin Blaya, who helped build Telemundo and the Spanish-language behemoth Univision, questioned whether a Miami-based national network could broadcast effectively to Spanish-speakers of all different backgrounds. Miami is politically dominated by conservative-leaning Cuban Americans, but they’re a minority in the broader U.S. Latino population, which has far more Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans, and they tend to vote more Democratic. 

“The Miami market is not like any other market in the United States. Miami is a different country,” Blaya said.

Americano’s founders say they don’t have their Miami Cuban American blinders on and want to represent the full spectrum of Republican beliefs in Spanish. Garcia-Hidalgo notes that he was born in Peru and was a surrogate for Trump.

Americano’s president, Jorge Arrizurieta, is Cuban American and is a close ally of Bush.

“In today’s word, a conservative is in the eye of the beholder. This is a home for all of them,” Arrizurieta said. “Ivan is a Trump guy. I’m a Jeb Bush conservative.”

Americano’s radio broadcast has one irony: It’s made possible partly due to minority set-asides, which conservatives often oppose.

Americano will broadcast on SiriusXM channel 153 in partnership with a company called National Latino Broadcasting, which won the rights to it and channel 152 in 2012 in an effort to ensure satellite radio had content for Hispanic listeners.

The owner of National Latino Broadcasting, Cuban American businessman Nelson Albareda, is a Grammy and Latin Grammy Award-winning producer who is focused more on Channel 152, “En Vivo,” which plays Latin music.

Albareda said he was never quite able to make a Spanish-language talk show work on his other channel, 153. Called “La Politica Talk,” it's had a smattering of low-performing shows and essentially rebroadcasts Radio Martí, the U.S.-funded network aimed at an audience in Cuba created in part to undermine communist rule.

In 2016, Garcia-Hidalgo was serving as a Trump surrogate and said he saw a need for a “Rush Limbaugh in Spanish” to counteract what he saw as rampant liberal bias in Spanish-language media. Garcia-Hidalgo landed a few years later at Colombia-based NTN24 and soon had one of its top-rated TV shows, “Batalla Política,” or “Political Battle,” alongside Democrat José Aristimuño, who is joining Americano as a commentator.

Garcia-Hidalgo, who won't have a show while serving as CEO, said that experience made him realize there was not just a U.S. market for conservative Spanish-language content, there was an appetite across the hemisphere and viewers and listeners could be reached like never before via satellite radio, streaming TV and the internet.

He joined forces with Arrizurieta, Caputo and John Wagner, a former U.S. Army spokesman and Trump administration adviser who serves as Americano’s senior vice president of communications. They soon signed a partnership with Albareda’s National Latino Broadcasting.

The first Americano broadcast begins at 6 a.m. ET Tuesday with the show "Amanecer con Dios," or "Sunrise with God," a show about faith hosted by a Roman Catholic priest.

The rest of the day’s programming is more explicitly political. In all, Americano so far has 29 commentators and about 10 reporters, its founders say, and they’ll broadcast from a studio near Casino Miami, one of the region’s last jai alai arenas. 

The studio is fully equipped for TV broadcasts — Queen Latifah once shot a movie there, and a host of entertainers from singer Gloria Estefan to rapper Rick Ross have used it. By next month, those involved said, Americano plans to offer its shows through its app and on podcast platforms. By August, the network hopes to stream all of its shows on video through platforms that range from Apple TV to PlayStation.

Ever mindful of the risks — and rewards — of social media de-platforming, Americano’s founders are diversifying the outlets for a reason.

“We might put some snippets on YouTube, but we’re not going to put our entire program on there because they will probably cancel us. That’s what they do,” Garcia-Hidalgo said.

Arrizurieta chimed in: “Might be good for publicity."

CORRECTION (March 7, 6:37 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated where the Americano network's Cuban American president, Jorge Arrizurieta, was born. He was born in Miami Beach, not Cuba.