Many Americans were surprised when President Trump won Florida on election night this year because of his low popularity within Latino and Hispanic communities, but pro-Biden activists and experts said this result was foreshadowed by months of misinformation targeting Cuban-Americans throughout the state.
Trump received the support of 56% of Cuban voters in Florida, an increase of 4 percent compared to the 2016 election. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, Cuban-Americans have historically always supported Republicans, but were beginning to shift toward democratic candidates up until this election.
Lisandro Pérez, founder of the Cuban Research Institute and professor of ethnic studies at John Jay College, said in an interview the Trump campaign’s focus on connecting now President-elect Joe Biden to socialist policies was critical to securing the Cuban vote.
In the weeks leading up to the election, the Trump campaign spent $37.2 million on campaign ads, dozens of which painted Biden as a radical left ideologue. Ad campaigns targeting Cuban-American communities in Florida said Biden “embraces extremist left-wing politics,” and other ads said he had close ties with Nicolás Maduro, the socialist leader of Venezuela.
“That label of socialism, that fear-mongering about socialism that was applied nationally, had a particular impact on Cubans,” said Pérez. “It had a particular impact on Cubans because of this history, that, for them, socialism means something a lot more, shall we say, radical than anybody in the U.S. has ever proposed.”
Many Cuban-Americans arrived in the country after fleeing the Castro regime, a communist dictatorship in their home country that resulted in the deaths of thousands and a mass exodus of Cuban refugees to the United States.
Pérez said the Trump campaign pushed hard in the months leading up to the election to connect socialism with radical left policies in a way that would intentionally frighten Cuban-American and Venezuelan American communities.
“The word socialism for someone who has experience in Cuba, particularly those who have somewhat more recently arrived from Cuba … socialism means a system that is to them, much more coercive,” Pérez said.
Pérez said the idea that Biden is a socialist is “laughable,” and that even policies from further left-leaning legislators like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders never echoed the actions of the Castro regime. But this hasn’t stopped Trump’s anti-socialist messaging.
Raymond Adderly, a 16-year-old Afro-Latino Cuban-American political organizer in Miami-Dade county in Florida, said the Trump campaign’s messaging created a “deep divide” in his community.
“That type of rhetoric, it’s turned family against family,” said Adderly. “I can’t tell you the amount of organizers that we’ve had that have had fights with their family, and people that are kicked out, disowned, called Socialists, excommunicated from church.”
Adderly is a political organizer with Cubanos Con Biden, a grassroots organization of Cuban-American voters who pledged their support to the Democratic nominee this election. He said the results in his county specifically showed that the gains Democrats made in Miami-Dade over recent years seemed to vanish.
While Adderly said part of the blame lies on the Democratic Party for its “neglect” of Black and Latino voters in Florida, he said the “most vivid” issue was how Republican rhetoric “played into the trauma” of his community, spreading fear and disinformation that muddied the political waters for people going to the polls.
“Not only Cubans, but Venezuelans and Nicaraguans alike all suffered, leaving their countries because of socialist regimes,” he said. This meant to Adderly that these communities already susceptible to anti-socialist messaging were exploited to gain votes.
But, for the Cuban-Americans who supported Biden, their family histories play an important role in how they viewed the 2020 election as well.
Mercedes Aleida Hughes Terrill and Maggie Ramirez Malast, two sisters from Florida, said their family’s history escaping the Castro regime only strengthened their resolve to vote against a president who they said “doesn’t play by the rules.”
Terrill and Malast are the daughters of first generation Cuban immigrants, refugees that fled the island to the U.S. to start a new life. Their grandfather, a prominent anti-socialist demonstrator on the island, was murdered during the overthrow of the Batista regime. While some of their family members remained trapped on the island, those that could escaped.
In the following years, their family worked with the CIA to try and rescue people from the island. According to the sisters, their father transported refugees from the island for ten years following his escape, shipping in supplies for the elderly and disabled and shipping out those that were able to meet him at the shore.
Terrill and Malast said they never believed the Trump campaign’s claims that Biden was a socialist, because they understood that socialism and socialist programs weren’t what led to the deaths of their family members, it was Fidel Castro and his communist regime that did that.
“Donald Trump in the White House scares the shit out of me,” said Malast. “I don’t want somebody who will undermine the constitution, I don’t want somebody who’s not gonna follow the rules, who’s not going to respect my rights.”
Terrill said the “concentration camps holding Hispanics” at the southern border, the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from Republicans and subverting the constitution were echoes from Cuban history.
“It scares me because that reminds me of all the stories I’ve heard from my family,” said Terrill.
In particular, she said she was affected by the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward migrant families and refugee families throughout the presidency.
“The stigma he put on them, not accepting them into the United States, I thought: what’s the difference between them and what my family went through?” said Terrill.
Now, as the post-election fighting unfolds and Trump refuses to concede, she said it’s clear Trump is like the strongmen of Communist Cuba.
“I don’t trust this guy, because he’s a dictator at heart,” said Terrill.