MIAMI, Florida -- In a questionable last-ditch move to cement his base among a diminishing population of older Cuban American exiles, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the endorsement of veterans of the notorious 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion on Tuesday.
"I'm in a room of heroes, true heroes," Trump said surrounded by walls lined with black and white photos of participants in the CIA-backed military assault.
Analysts say the Trump campaign is banking on older Cubans like the Bay of Pigs veterans to boost its weak Hispanic support in Florida, a key swing state that could determine the outcome of the vote in November.
But Trump's Cuban American strategy is running counter to a changing demographic reality, political experts say. The Cuban American vote is no longer as red as it used to be as older Cuban-born exiles die and their U.S.-born children and grandchildren are increasingly registering as Democrats and Independents.
Once a bastion of Republican support, Miami’s Cuban Americans are now evenly split 41-41 percent between Trump and Clinton, an October Univision poll found. "That is the lowest ever by a Republican candidate among Cuban American voters,” according to Eduardo Gamarra, a pollster and political scientist at Florida International University.
Trump has also failed to garner the support of key Cuban American leaders. In a shock move, one influential business group, the Latin Builders Association, endorsed Clinton.
Trump's visit on Tuesday satisfied the urgent need for a photo opportunity with Miami fans, given his campaign's recent drop in the polls. “It’s a symbolic appeal to Cold War types who fought for freedom,” said Gamarra.
“But in terms of demographics it makes no sense,” he added. "They are such a small group of people. They are loyal and disciplined voters but they are no longer the majority of the Cuban American electorate in Florida.”
Tuesday's event was attended by some 40 Bay of Pigs veterans.
"Our decision was a no brainer," Humberto Díaz Arguelles, president of the Brigade 2506 Veteran's Association, proudly told the audience. "Mr. Trump’s values and political agenda are much more aligned with ours than the socialist progressive agenda of Hillary Clinton."
Díaz told Univision that Trump was invited "to explain to us his plan for Cuba's freedom."
When Trump spoke, he pointed to the wall of faces and said: “I won’t forget them.”
But, as has been customary in the campaign, Trump did not offer any details of a plan to free Cuba.
In a brief address that lasted 10 minutes Trump stuck to more general campaign issues. "We have to build up our military and we have to save your Social Security and your Medicare," he said. "We have to help our veterans who are being treated horribly," he added to applause - and chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A."
In a rare effort to speak a few words of Spanish, Trump clumsily tried to pronounce the name of a famous Cuban opposition group, the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White).
He looked out at the audience and said, "Damas," then glanced down at a piece of paper before adding "en Blanco" (instead of "de").
He seemed proud of himself and said he had practiced saying the name repeatedly with the help of a campaign staffer before taking the stage.
What Cuban American Trump supporters have to say
Trump began reaching out to hardline Cuban exiles in September when he visited Miami and vowed to overturn the Obama administration’s recent warming of relations with the communist-run island.
Trump has previously given mild backing for Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba last year, and even criticized the 50-year-old economic embargo against Cuba.
The Bays of Pigs veterans museum in the heart of the city's Little Havana district has long been a place of homage for local politicians. The museum commemorates the failed CIA-backed covert military operation involving 1,400 American-trained Cuban exiles, known as Brigade 2506, who had fled the island after Fidel Castro took power two years earlier.
The seaborne invading force was badly outnumbered by Castro’s troops, and they quickly surrendered. More than 110 members of the Brigade were killed. Another 1,113 were taken prisoner by Cuba; released 18 months later in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine.
Exiles today blame the Kennedy administration for failing to provide the invading force much needed air support, one of the main reasons that older Cuban exiles remain staunch Republicans.
“I can't be a Democrat because we were betrayed," said one veteran, Jorge García Rubio.
But Trump has faced criticism from many Cuban Americans who support Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba, including some ex-Brigade members.
Trump’s latest Miami visit was “a waste of time,” said Antonio Zamora, a Cuban American lawyer and former Bay of Pigs prisoner. “I think he’s totally out of touch. The new relationship with Cuba is irreversible. It’s a done deal,” he said, noting that recent polls showing a majority of Cuban Americans support Obama’s Cuba policy.
Zamora long ago made his peace with the Cuban government and now returns to the island frequently as a consultant for U.S. companies, among them The Trump Organization. He did research for the Trump Organization on a joint tourism project with a Spanish company in the 1990s that never materialized, he said.
Trump's dalliance with Cuba has aroused accusations of hypocrisy over his current oppostion to improved ties with the islands' communist rulers. Díaz, the veterans association president, said Trump had changed his position on doing business in Cuba a long time ago. "He realized the reality," said Díaz, noting Trump had visited the 2506 Brigade museum in 1999. "Humans sometimes err and also have the right to say; 'I was wrong,'" he said.
Trump’s belligerent style and controversial remarks about Vladimir Putin, as well as allegations of election “rigging” in the United States, have also alienated him from many Cubans Americans who fled dictatorial rule in Cuba.
“Who would have ever thought that for us Cuban Americans the circle would close in 2016, and we would be witnessing the threat of a dictatorial figure coming within close reach of the presidency in America?" wrote Cuban American columnist Fabiola Santiago in the Miami Herald this month.
Rachel Glickhouse also contributed to this article.