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Donald Trump’s latest policy reset, this time on Cuba, appears to be designed to win over the conservative Cuban American vote which Republicans once counted on to boost their numbers in heavily democratic South Florida.
His tough talk about demanding political concessions from Cuba’s communist party leaders sits well with Miami’s old guard of Cuban exile hardliners, and analysts say the Trump campaign is now banking on them to boost its weak Hispanic support in Florida, a key swing state that could determine the outcome of the vote in November.
“Flip flopping on Cuba policy cements his appeal with this minority Cuban American segment,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a pollster and political scientist at Florida International University.
Gamarra noted that while the Republican candidate is hugely popular with conservative whites in Florida, Trump is polling poorly with Hispanics statewide. “In a Florida wide context where he needs as many Latino votes as possible, obtaining 35% of the Cuban American vote will be a major accomplishment,” he said.
However, it’s a risky strategy that could backfire by alienating younger and more moderate Cuban American voters who have embraced President Obama’s efforts to reconcile with Washington’s former Cold War foe.
Recent polls have shown a large majority of Cuban Americans support Obama’s opening to Cuba, with and a sharp decline in registered Republicans.
Also, reverting back to Washington’s timeworn strategy of isolating Cuba, which failed to produce results for 50 years, runs counter to Trump’s popular image of an outsider seeking to break up the status quo.
The Cuba flip came at a hastily-arranged downtown Miami rally on Friday evening where Trump vowed to reverse the Obama administration’s recent warming of relations with the communist-run island.
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order — which means the next president can reverse them," Trump told the rally, drawing cheers from a largely Cuban American audience of about 2,500 people.
"And that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands ... those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people, and the freeing of political prisoners,” he added.
Trump’s revised Cuba strategy works on one important level. Prior to Friday he didn’t really have a Cuba policy leaving him open to attack from both left and right. He had offered mild backing for Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba last year, and even criticized the 50-year-old economic embargo against Cuba which is still in place.
None of that was likely to endear him to the old guard of Cuban Americans in Miami. At the same time, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Hispanics, as well as his opposition to Obamacare, made him instantly unappealing to younger Cuban Americans and newer arrivals from the island who are accustomed to socialize healthcare.
By adopting a harsher tone with the Cuban government Trump now has a better chance of appealing to older Cuban American conservatives.
“The Cuban American vote will add to the huge lead he has among Florida white voters. Trump could win Florida by putting together a minority Cuban American and white coalition,” said Gamarra.
It also distinguishes Trump more clearly from Hillary Clinton who is all on board with Obama's Cuba policy.
"Barack Obama went there (Cuba) and gave away the farm," said José Uz, co-founder of Cubans for Trump, who attended Friday rally. "He gave Fidel and Raul (Castro) everything they wanted and got nothing in return."
Trump’s about face on Cuba is still mystifying considering how the changing demographics in Miami have wiped away the GOP’s historic advantage among Cuban Americans. So why does it make sense for Trump to go after such a shrinking minority?
For one thing, Trump’s new Cuba strategy could also help him win over Miami’s influential Cuban American congressional delegation – all conservative Republicans – who have notably distanced themselves from his campaign so far.
Only Senator Marco Rubio, belittled by Trump during the primaries, has offered lukewarm support for Trump’s presidential bid. Others, such as Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have outright rejected him.
Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen did not respond to request for comment from Univision on Saturday.
In remains to be seen how well this works for Trump. None of them attended Friday’s rally. Instead, Trump was introduced by two largely unknown Miami Cuban Americans, county GOP Chairman Nelson Diaz and state Representative Carlos Trujillo.
Trump is counting on one other important factor in Florida’s electorate, according to Gamarra.
“Older more conservative segments also vote in a more disciplined manner,” he said. “Younger Cubans (especially millennials) who are trending more Independent and Democratic are less likely to vote,” Gamarra added, noting that many of them were Bernie Sanders supporters.
Typically, Trump declined to go into details, though campaign sources told Univision he is planning to meet with Cuban American leaders as soon as next week. Among their likely concerns: what does he plan to do about the recent renewal of regular commercial flights to Cuba, and cash remittances to the island.
There is also the thorny immigration issue, and concerns among older exiles who say recent arrivals are abusing the Cuban Adjustment Act which grants almost automatic entry to undocumented Cubans fleeing the island.
Trump can expect a backlash from moderate Cuban Americans, including a number of leading Cuban Americans, who have embraced Obama’s Cuba policy.
“It is beyond belief that I see this charlatan (Trump) one step away from the presidency,” said Mike Fernandez, a Cuban American multi-millionaire businessman and major Republican donor who has strongly backed Obama’s Cuba policy. “I have never voted Democrat in my life but this election is about the lesser of two evils,” he added.
During his presidency Obama quietly compiled an impressive team of Cuban American advisers – mostly former Republicans, who have reached out to younger Cuban American voters. They passionately support Obama’s Cuba policy, launched on December 17 2014.
"The post-D17 policy has allowed thousands of Cuban Americans to reconnect with their families on the island and build a new relationship with the Cuban people,” said Giancarlo Sopo, 33, founder of CubaOne Foundation which promotes travel to Cuba by young Cuban Americans seeking to explore their roots.
“We've seen young people hug their grandparents for the first time, entrepreneurs support one another, and artists collaborate. Building bridges with the Cuban people moves us forward," he added.