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Trump's political bet on the Cuban-American vote

Trump has made a personal effort to win the vote of Cuban Americans by appealing to the anti-socialist vote. But some prominent exile heroes are protesting what they say are his campaign's "lies and manipulations." (Leer este articulo en español)
28 Oct 2020 – 11:18 AM EDT
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U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks in honor of Bay of Pigs Veterans in the East Room of the White House on September 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. Crédito: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

As the Republican and Democratic party candidates are battling hard for the large, and potentially crucial, Cuban American vote in South Florida, two TV advertisements neatly sum of the two opposing arguments.

In this deeply polarized electorate, they could not be farther apart: Joe Biden the “socialist”, or Donald Trump the “dictator”, take your pick.

One ad, by the political action committee of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, features Santiago Morales, a 78-year-old veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, a millionaire businessman who owns a global auto parts manufacturing company.

Like many other Cubans voting for Biden “we are not socialists, or communists,” says Morales in the ad, titled ‘Somos patriotas.’

“Enough with the lies and the manipulations,” he adds.

In the other, pro-Trump ad by the America First Action super PAC, the son of Cuban exiles, Jose ‘Pepi’ Cancio, gives the other side. “Socialism and communism is not a joke,” he says, after explaining that his parents left Cuba. Also a successful businessman, Cancio says” I don’t trust Joe Biden because of his socialist agenda.”

Just like other Republicans before him, Trump has made a big bet on support from Cuban American voters, hoping it will boost his poor overall numbers with Hispanics. It may be working as polls show a tilt to the right among Cubans Americans, ending decades of steady drift towards the Democrats. But whether it will be enough to deliver Florida for Trump remains impossible to forecast and polls show the race is neck and neck.

Political control

Mostly squeezed into South Florida, Cuban Americans account for only about five percent of the state’s roughly 14 million eligible voters. Furthermore, the Cuban American political grip on Miami may be slipping. Cuban Americans lost two South Florida congressional seats in 2018 and are in danger of losing the Miami Dade County mayor’s race, for the first time since 1996.

Cuban Americans now represent only half of the Hispanic population in Miami Dade county – 989,000 out of 1.8 million – with Central and South American communities beginning to emerge strongly. “Miami has become a lot more like a great immigrant city and its politics is now becoming more diverse,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-born political scientist at Florida International University (FIU). “We are seeing the tail-end of the Cuban monopoly of politics in the county,” he added.

What is evident, is that a majority of Cuban Americans support Trump’s tough policy towards Cuba, including undoing the relaxing of travel restrictions during the Obama administration which included opening the island to U.S.-based cruise ships.

However, some Cuban exiles say they are offended by the attacks on Biden, and the suggestion that supporting him is a vote for Cuban communism.

Morales says he doesn’t understand why his former Bay of Pigs comrades, known as the 2506 Brigade, are so enamored of Trump, who has referred to veterans who died of were captured in wars as “losers.”

Bay of Pigs - 1961

Yet Trump is proud of the endorsement he received this year from the 2506 Brigade, a CIA-trained invasion force which was spectacularly defeated by Fidel Castro’s army after a beach landing on Cuba’s south coast. More than 100 were killed and 1,200 were captured.

Morales is proud of his role in the Bay of Pigs and does not like his patriotism being questioned. Aged only 19 at the time of the invasion, he was one of a small group who were infiltrated two months prior to the attack. The U.S. negotiated the release of most of the prisoners in December 1962 in return for $53 million in food and medical supplies to Cuba. But Morales was tried as a CIA spy and spent 18 years in jail. Because of his age, being under 21, “I was spared from the firing squad,” he said.

Many Bay of Pigs veterans came away from the experience bitter with President John F Kennedy – a Democrat – for his decision not to fully back the invasion with U.S. military support.

But Morales, a lifelong Democrat, says he never let his years in prison cloud his politics. “I see society in a more generous way. We are here to make it good for eachother, not to screw eachother,” he told Univision, while smoking a mid-morning cigar.

He said it was objectively nonsense to imagine socialism taking root in the United States. “There’s no conditions in this society for socialism. But if you’re not in that loop everybody is a communist. They use that word so much it’s loses all meaning,” he lamented.

Instead he worries about the autocratic, fascist tendencies he sees in Trump, such as calling for his opponents to be "locked up" and descriving journalists as "enemies of the state."

Morales is not alone. José Andreu, one of the most senior veteran of the Bay of Pigs, also told the Miami Herald last week that he rejects Brigade 2506’s endorsement of Trump. “As a political leader, Mr. Trump has been disastrous,” Andreu, an 84-year-old former World Bank executive, wrote in a blistering letter.

The brigade is named 2506 after the serial number of one of its members who was killed in a training accident. Andreu’s serial number as a soldier was 2501, a recognition that he was the first young Cuban to be recruited. Morales, was also an early member, No. 2531.

Andreu and Morales were both chosen to give videotaped interviews about their Bay of Pigs experience to the Veterans History project for the Library of Congress.

In a letter to the Brigade 2506 released to the Miami Herald, Andreu asked the veterans association not to endorse any candidate. In the letter he accused Trump of being a “disastrous” political leader who had destroyed the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan.

“He has defamed allies and cultivated relationships with the dictators of Russia, North Korea, Turkey,” he added.

'Pepi' Cancio

On the other hand, Trump is winning over new Cuban voters, like Cancio, who is the CEO of a large concrete pumping company in Florida and Texas. He didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, thinking he couldn’t win, and voted in the Republican primary for John Kasich, the former Ohio governor who has now left his party’s ranks and is backing Biden.

“I love my president because he is an outsider that has exposed all the corruption that would have been otherwise hidden from the American people,” he told Univision by email. While he considered Trump to be an honest man, he said Biden was corrupt and a “puppet” of socialists such as his former political rival Bernie Sanders and billionaire investor and philanthropist, George Soros.

He blamed the media for Trump’s low approval ratings and praised him for his handling of the economy. “I almost lost it all after the economy meltdown in 2008. Glad that Trump is in charge to handle bringing economy back after the pandemic,” he added.

Cancio’s parents left Cuba after Castro took over and left with nothing but their clothes. His father’s first job was selling Coca Cola at the University of Miami’s football stadium, while also working as a door man in Miami Beach and later for a dry cleaning service.

Fading history

However, he recognized that Cuba policy may be a waning issue. “It is very important for my parents, older generations, and probably my generation would be one of the last ones with enough interest after 60 years of communism. History and feelings are fading,” he said.

For now, Trump appears to have successfully tapped into whatever is left of that historical legacy. He famously paid a visit to the small Bay of Pigs museum in Little Havana in 1999 and again during the 2016 campaign.

On September 23, he honored several Bay of Pigs veterans with an event at the White House. “You were fighting for the values of freedom and liberty that unite us all. The same values that are at stake in our election,” he told them.

“Today, we proclaim that America will never be a socialist or communist country,” he added.

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