A common question this election cycle, especially from non-Cuban Americans, was “How could Cubans immigrants possibly support Trump?” The question of Republican support among the Cuban diaspora in Florida has bedeviled Democrats for decades, including many in the community itself.
It is easy and often comforting to fall into the trap of marshaling broader historical processes to rationalize disappointments. In this case, it usually starts off by pointing to the Cuban Revolution as an event that primed the diaspora for the red scare tactics that the GOP loves to deploy. Added to it is the problem of Cuban exceptionalism, buoyed but not born of special migratory rules for Cubans, which undermines their sense of solidarity with other Latin American immigrants. Then you might get into discussions of the long shadow of racism in Cuba’s history, with the island’s transformation during the Spanish colonial period into a plantation society giving it more commonality with the antebellum American South than, say, many parts of Central America.
But in telling the story of Cuban voting patterns this way, we often lose sight of the ways that the community’s politics often reflect internal US trends, including old and familiar political strategies. It isn’t that these problems specific to Cuba aren’t real, but that by focusing on them we are buying into a premise that inevitably leads to the assumption that Cubans are “natural Republicans,” about which we can do little. If we stop assuming that Cubans are a “special” case, we may not only start to see them as part of something more familiar; we may also start to see actual solutions.
A good place to start looking for answers is Florida International University’s Cuba Poll, run by sociologists Guillermo Grenier and Qing Lai, which Grenier has been periodically conducting for almost 30 years. The poll takes samples of Cuban immigrants and Cubans born outside of Cuba who live in South Florida, and varies from 800 to 1,000 people. It focuses on a series of questions about US policy toward Cuba and their political affiliations here in the United States. While attempts at explanations of Cuban voting patterns often put US policy toward Cuba at their center, Grenier says the data have never borne this out. “Cubans,” he tells me, “are often treated like perpetual exiles,” but in terms of what is most important to them in US politics, Cuba policy regularly rates last, behind issues like health care and the economy. While the diaspora may be more open to manipulation through Red Scare tactics than other communities, even in this respect Cubans merely reproduce a rhetoric that has become a standard part of GOP campaigns across the country. “It’s not just a Cuban thing. They’re [seen as] weird because they’re in a critical state…. but as far as Republicans go, Cubans aren’t far off from moderate [Republicans].”
It’s true that many Cuban exiles worked closely with the GOP—including many of the Watergate burglars who saw the bugging of the DNC as part of the broader fight against Communism—but the community was not as tightly wed to the party in the early decades after the Revolution as it has become since. Indeed, while the Kennedy administration is often remembered primarily in connection with its perceived “betrayal” of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion force, it’s often forgotten that President Kennedy played a key role in instituting the Cuban Refugee Program, which facilitated the US entry of tens of thousands of Cubans a year and set aside significant funds for their resettlement.
The GOP now promotes its hard-right, anti-socialist Latin America policy in Florida, and analysts rightly see that as a strategy to cultivate popular support in the Sunshine State, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. A key part of the deeper answer to the GOP’s success seems to lie in the political machine the party has built up in Florida.
For Grenier, the big shift came under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. “The Republican Party put boots on the ground under Reagan,” he explains. “Cubans were surrogates for the Reagan administration in Central America,” on the one hand, “but on the other hand, [Reagan was saying] ‘I’m going to make you guys citizens and you are going to join the Republican Party.’” Under Reagan, institutions like the Cuban American National Foundation were built up to help lobby for the interests of Cuban-American Republicans. “The Republican Party talked the talk and walked the walk,” says Grenier.
As Reagan’s strategy progressed and more opportunities for advancement started opening on the right, many ambitious young Cuban-American Democrats began switching parties. We can see this turn in the career of longtime Republican Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart, who started in politics as a president of the Florida Young Democrats. He even ran, and lost, as a Democrat in a state race in 1982 before cochairing the Democrats for Reagan Campaign in 1984 and formally switching parties in 1985. The so-called “Reagan Revolution” ended, but the GOP’s strategy in Florida continued, and built on its gains.
Another good example is TV and Radio Martí, the propaganda channels now operating under the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, based in Miami and aimed at Cuba. The channels have been a poor man’s Radio Free Europe, with all the costs of their better-known predecessor, but without its competence or impact. Radio Martí was founded in 1983, at the height of the Reagan revolution, and shored up Republican support among Cuban immigrants, while TV Martí was founded in 1990, under George H.W. Bush, as Reaganism receded.
Despite their systematic failure to make significant inroads in Cuban public opinion, as of 2018 they had cost taxpayers just shy of $800 million. They seem to exist principally to play the dual role of being a shining symbol of Republican commitment to a “free Cuba” and providing steady employment to a gaggle of right-leaning, Spanish-speaking employees in Florida. They recently made the news by broadcasting anti-Semitic stories about the alleged political machinations of George Soros, with one reporter calling him a “nonpracticing Jew of flexible morals,” resulting in eight TV and Radio Martí employees’ being fired. They may seem on the surface to be rather ineffectual organizations, but as federally—and lavishly—funded institutions, they function as an effective part of the GOP’s patronage and political machinery in Florida, offering both jobs and politically useful symbols.
Recent Democrat-to-Republican converts who played key roles in the 2020 election seem to bolster the idea that an old pattern—that of shifting political loyalties in search of personal opportunities—is continuing. Much discussed in the press, Cuban immigrant turned Florida social media influencer Alex Otaola has been widely credited as pivotal in the GOP’s war for public opinion in Florida. Born in Cuba in 1979, Otaola arrived in the United States in 2003. He began a YouTube channel in 2017 to promote his Web show Hola Otaola after losing his job with the Spanish-language network Mega TV in 2015, and has since become the new media equivalent of what right-wing talk-radio was in the 1990s. Less discussed, however, is that Otaola was a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and only switched parties as recently as 2018.
Another case in point is Giancarlo Sopo, director of rapid response in Spanish-language media for Trump’s 2020 campaign. Sopo had previously made news for resigning from his post as communications director for then–Democratic Representative Joe Garcia in 2013 following a police raid on a family member’s home as part of an investigation into Sopo’s alleged role in illegal unsolicited requests for absentee ballots during the 2012 Democratic primary. Sopo was never charged and later claimed to have been tricked into participating in the scheme by Garcia’s former chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation), who ultimately served jail time for his role in the plot. Sopo cofounded the CubaOne Foundation (which supports normalization with Cuba) as recently as 2016, was presenting himself as a moderate liberal during much of the Trump administration, and, according to a leaked conversation attributed to Sopo by the Florida Democratic Party, was privately complaining that Trump had “disgraced the office” of the presidency “with his conduct” as recently as October of 2018, before earning a fellowship in 2019 with a right-wing think tank, the National Review Institute. He then became a staff writer at the right-wing media company The Blaze, and joined the Trump campaign this past April. (Disclosure: Sopo and I have had negative personal interactions on Twitter dating back to at least 2018.)
Support for the GOP among Cuban Americans in Florida receded under Obama, but that didn’t last. I pressed Grenier as to why. “There was no concomitant attempt by the Democratic Party to reach out to Cubans and build the base. It was all top down.… There was no bottom-up organizing for Democrats.” In short, “to chip away at” Cuban support for the GOP, “you’ve got to be around.” As Stacey Abrams and other Democrats in Georgia just demonstrated, if Democrats want to build political power in a difficult environment, there is no substitute for deep, grassroots organizing.
One bright spot for Democrats in recent decades has been growing receptiveness to Democratic politics as well as normalization of relations with Cuba among both recent migrants and second- and third-generation Cuban Americans. But recent polling has cast a shadow over that too, with signs of a rightward shift more generally, and in particular among recent arrivals from Cuba. In a recent article for Progreso Weekly, Grenier noted that in the 2020 Cuba Poll, “for the first time since we’ve been keeping records,” “new arrivals are registering Republican rather than Democrat or Independent (No Party Affiliation) to the tune of 76%.”
A big part of this shift seems to be the one-two punch of the right’s effective use of social media as a delivery mechanism for right-wing political messaging. The more established Spanish-language newspapers, like El Nuevo Herald, as well as online blogs targeting Cubans on and off the island, like Diario de Cuba or Cubanet, certainly haven’t gone anywhere. But social networks like Facebook and mobile apps like WhatsApp have become incredibly effective tools for the spread of right-wing memes, videos, and articles. This is perhaps made easier with relatively new arrivals because they, like all immigrants, are still learning to navigate and critically consume US media. Grenier sees new media as a “repackaging of Cuban exile ideology” for a new audience.
In order to understand better how this played out in practice, I reached out to three Cuban immigrants who had arrived in the past five years, had yet to obtain US citizenship, and who all supported Trump. All three were legal permanent residents at interview time, saw social networks as central parts of how they got their news, have family in Cuba whom they help support and thereby protect from the impact of Trump’s sanctions. Two of them earned between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, and one, my former classmate at the University of Havana, Carelis Enriquez, 30, lives in Miami; she arrived thanks to an application through her spouse, and earns under $30,000. She “preferred” Trump because she saw him as more straightforward and better on the economy than Biden, whom she saw as ineffective and “somewhat pedophilic.” Anti-immigrant sentiment under Trump bothered her, but she hadn’t personally been affected by it, and, more important, agreed with many restrictive immigration policies because she disliked the idea of “other people living on my taxes.” She has a deep distrust of the press, and gets most of her news from coworkers and social networks.
Jorge Roca, 33, arrived under the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program and lives in north Georgia, earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. He would have voted for Trump if he had been a citizen, he says, “because, I dunno, it’s a Republican talking point, but based on Biden’s speeches and Biden’s interviews, he seems like Fidel Castro.” Roca receives his news mostly from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, including both Spanish-language sources like the right-leaning Diario de Cuba and Otaola, as well as English-language new media like Ben Shapiro’s podcast or the Chicks on the Right podcast, both of which he found out about through friends on Facebook or Facebook recommendations.
Finally, South Florida resident Nelson Valiente, also 33, arrived under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy (begun during the Clinton administration, this policy allowed the US government to deport Cuban refugees intercepted in waters between the two nations, but allowed those who made it to US land to seek expedited permanent-resident status and eventually seek citizenship). Valiente said that while he didn’t think either candidate would impact his life much, because he didn’t pin his hopes on any government, “whether right or left,” he “preferred” Trump because, he believes, the “ideology of the right” supports self-improvement and he is skeptical of claims that people can’t advance in life because of discrimination. At the same time, Valiente recognizes that Trump isn’t particularly diplomatic or presidential. He gets most of his news through articles on Facebook and Twitter, but doesn’t regularly go to any specific news source, because such sources make him feel “manipulated.” He also noticed that many of the members of the electrical workers union he was a part of strongly supported Biden and that there seemed to be friction between Trump and unions.
The ability of right-wing messaging to successfully reach these new immigrants and shape their views of US politics points to potential trouble down the line for Democrats. It also seems to support the older consensus that the special rules for Cuban immigration historically undermine solidarity with other Latin American immigrants or even more recent arrivals facing a post–wet foot, dry foot world (as one of the last acts of his administration, coming after the historic normalization of relations, Obama ended the wet foot, dry foot policy). Perhaps there will be a reckoning with Trump’s harsh immigration policies and their impact on Cuban new arrivals, which could help shift Cubans away from the GOP—but that shift has yet to arrive.
GOP machine and patronage politics and right-wing use of new media and social networks are not the complete story. But they do seem to be emerging as two concrete problems that Democrats will have to grapple with not only to make inroads but, more importantly, to retain support in the Cuban-American community. One, politics and patronage, is part of a very old and very American story, harkening back at least to Tammany Hall’s political machine in 19th-century New York, which built up a similar relationship with Irish immigrants. The other, media, is taking on new forms in a digital age, but if recent statements by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke are anything to go by, this is a national problem for Democrats that a growing chorus within the party are already well aware of. Grenier tells me that Democrats in Florida are already well aware that the GOP’s hold over the Cuban-American community was not built overnight. We can’t expect Democratic inroads to be either.