I’ll never forget June 28, 2000. I was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Inter-American Affairs in the Clinton administration.
My assistant advised me that my mother was calling. I picked up the phone and was startled to hear her sobbing. Thoughts raced through my mind: Had something happened to my father, my siblings or their children? Our cousins and their families?
“Se llevaron el niño,” she said, crying. “They took the boy.” Elian Gonzalez had been flown back to Cuba with his father. The U.S. Supreme Court had rejected an emergency political asylum request from the boy’s Miami relatives, ending a lengthy custody fight. I tried to console her.
As we spoke in the following days, it became evident she was reliving the trauma she had suffered as a young woman leaving her country suddenly and in distress. In conversations with her Cuban exile peers, I heard the same distress; they seemed depressed or suffering PTSD.
Years earlier, I had asked Dr. Michael Coppedge, then my professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, what he thought about the Cuban American experience. He responded that Cuban Americans had been uprooted and experienced trauma. “Uprooted” captures it perfectly: Like a tree yanked from the earth, Cubans were torn away from their land - their beloved tierra - leaving behind homes, families, friends and communities.
While Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara executed, tortured and imprisoned the regime’s democratic opponents, terrified Cubans scrambled to leave. Families were torn apart: Parents sent their children abroad but stayed behind, hopeful of reunification. Husbands or wives left when possible, leaving spouses behind. Abuela left but abuelo stayed. Extended families were hopelessly divided.
Do Cuban Americans want to endure another authoritarian? Moderates among us will have a say in whether America turns toward authoritarian rule. Steven Calabresi, co-founder of the ultra-conservative Federalist Society called for a second impeachment inquiry into President Trump after Trump tweeted that the upcoming 2020 presidential election should be delayed.
Americans would expect any President to ensure that every valid vote will be counted. This President instead repeatedly, falsely claims that mail-in voting will be fraudulent and the election rigged if he were to lose, yet he and the First Lady requested mail-in ballots in Florida.
GOP election lawyer Benjamin L. Ginsberg, who played a central role in the 2000 Florida recount, refutes the President’s claims: “Calling elections ‘fraudulent’ and results ‘rigged’ with almost nonexistent evidence is antithetical to being the “rule of law” party.” Apparently, only the “rule” in rule of law interests this president.
Riling up the crowd at a rally on International Workers Day, May 1, 1960, Fidel Castro exclaimed, “Our enemies, our detractors, are asking for elections,” and the crowd repeatedly chanted, “¿Elecciones para qué?...¡Ya votamos por Fidel!“ (…Elections for what? … We already voted for Fidel!) Meanwhile, Castro’s broadcasters at the media outlets he confiscated reminded everyone, especially the 'gusanos', (maggots), as the dictatorship called opponents, that the Revolution was watching.
Does anybody want to go down the same path that Fidel Castro took Cubans? President Trump embraces authoritarians like nationalist populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary—no longer democratic—and President Andresj Duda of Poland, moving toward authoritarian rule. Crushed by Soviet tanks in the 1950s, both countries became democracies in 1989 as the Soviet Union dissolved but are now authoritarian or headed there. Nationalist populists have risen in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Austria, the Scandinavian
countries and, closer to home, Brazil.
Like communist Cuba, radical populists have severely damaged Latin America countries: Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Kirschner and Fernandez-Kirschner in Argentina. They wait in the wings in Spain.
Nationalist and radical populists use the same propaganda playbook: lie, exaggerate, deceive, name-call, scapegoat, and appeal to patriotism, emotions and convictions—and repeat, repeat, repeat. Erode confidence in democracy, subdue governmental institutions, sow confusion and division, and create an aura of chaos. Then reap support for a populist authoritarian promising law and order. This is the Trump playbook.
Trump’s bible photo op occurred against a backdrop most Americans did not see. The Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, active-duty paratroopers trained to kill in wars, was deployed from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., armed with live ammunition rounds, bayonets, and riot gear. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, 'The Old Guard,' was put on alert and issued bayonets.
These troops were poised to be pitted against Americans our military considered overwhelmingly peaceful protestors. Former Trump Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis and former Joint Staff chairmen, Gen. Martin Dempsey and Adm. Mike Mullen, denounced deploying active-duty troops to potentially clash with Americans and the use of JCS Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper as photo op props.
Trump and his radio, TV, and social media propagandists call Joe Biden a “radical leftist” and "socialist.” Biden is neither. He won the primary with a vision of a united, prosperous, and inclusive America. Colin Powell, John Kasich, Christine Todd Whitman, Tom Ridge, and many other conservatives will vote for him.
In an 1891 speech in Tampa, Cuban independence leader Jose Marti said, “Las palmas son novias que esperan.” (Palms are girlfriends who wait). Like Marti longed for a Cuba free of Spanish rule, Cuban Americans long for the end of the brutal Cuban dictatorship.
The ceiba tree at the Bay of Pigs Memorial at Calle Ocho and SW 13th Avenue in Little Havana evokes a community that has thrown down solid roots and made America its home. Do we really want to enable authoritarian rule in the United States?
(Pedro Pablo Permuy served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Inter-American Affairs in the Clinton administration and National Security Adviser to the Chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives.)