'We're not gonna be manipulated.' Cracks form in Trump's Cuban-American base

©Miami Herald

MIAMI — From the passenger seat of a Mercedes-Benz idling in the heart of America’s Cuban exile community, George Marrero explained Saturday why he would not vote again for President Donald Trump.

“This country has been abused for the last four years,” the retired Coral Gables police officer said while waiting for the start of a Cubanos con Biden caravan in the majority-Cuban city of Hialeah. “(Democratic presidential nominee) Joe Biden is going to bring back — like he’s said — the soul of America. It’s been lost.”

Amid evidence that Trump has significantly expanded his support among Miami-Dade’s traditionally conservative Cuban exile community, a counter-movement is afoot to show that there are thousands of Cuban-Americans in Florida who believe the president does not have their best interests at heart.

Prominent exiles like former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas have criticized Trump’s authoritarian streak. Last week, Luis Santeiro, the Cuban-American head writer of the ground-breaking 1970s Spanglish TV sitcom “¿Que Pasa, USA?” warned in a Miami Herald opinion piece that “when we label someone we disagree with a communist, a fidelista or a reactionary, we only echo the intransigence of the regime we fled.”

And while Republican Cubans continue to maintain the strongest presence in Miami’s influential Spanish-language media and its political hierarchy, Democratic activists are organizing events like Saturday’s pro-Biden caravan from Hialeah to Little Havana to give a voice to those whose views differ from the majority.

“Traditionally, the Cuban community has gone Republican. And hats off to the Trump campaign, they’ve done a great job stoking the fears of socialism and communism in our community,” Mike Rivero, one of the organizers of Saturday’s caravan, said in an interview. “Enough is enough. We’re not gonna be manipulated.”

Saturday’s gathering, which the 30-year-old Rivero said drew about 200 vehicles, was among several pro-Biden events in Miami this weekend. Other caravans — the mass political gathering of choice amid the coronavirus pandemic — showcased Biden’s support from Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans, all crucial segments of the non-Cuban Hispanic voter coalition Biden needs to build to beat Trump in Florida.

Trump’s support among Cuban-Americans is bigger and more vocal. Massive pro-Trump political parades began months ago and continued Sunday with another caravan, also in Hialeah. Trump has also repeatedly made overtures to Miami’s exile communities, visiting often to talk about squashing socialism and to bash the Obama-Biden administration’s Cuba policies. Currently, the president is considering Cuban American judge Barbara Lagoa as his nominee to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But while few expect Biden to win the Cuban vote in Florida, strategists believe he must compete with Trump to win over more Cuban-Americans like Marrero, who told the Miami Herald he registered as a Democrat for the first time this year after previously registering Republican or without party affiliation.

“There’s a mentality that all Cubans or Latins are Republican. But there’s a lot who are not,” said the retired cop, riding in a sedan festooned with Biden placards and a sign in memory of Ginsburg. “I voted for Trump in ‘16 because I didn’t like Hillary Clinton and the policies that were there. Shortly after this guy got into office, his true self came out.”

Around Marrero, as the caravan prepared to roll, drivers laid on their horns. Someone banged an egg beater against a plastic jar, mimicking the unmistakable sound of spoons banging against pots and pans, a familiar form of celebration in Hispanic communities. Daniela Ferrera, a 22-year-old activist and political organizer, nodded approvingly at the size of a pro-Biden event “in the heart of what is supposedly a ruby red Republican town.”

Hialeah is a Republican bastion where more than half of the 240,000 residents are Cuban. It is a place where Democrats have repeatedly fallen well short of challenging conservative politicians and home to Miami-Dade Commissioner Steve Bovo, a pro-Trump county mayoral candidate whose father served in the unsuccessful CIA-backed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion that attempted to topple Fidel Castro’s new Cuban government.

But Democrats sense an opening. The city has been among the worst hit in Florida by the coronavirus pandemic. Overhead shots of long lines formed in the city by out-of-work residents seeking unemployment benefits have made it into Biden campaign commercials. And the top five ZIP codes in the country for enrollment in the Obamacare marketplace are all located in western and northwestern Miami-Dade, including Hialeah.

Across from Bright Park, Yudisleidy Dominguez, Ofelia Iglesias and Geidy Montes de Oca ran outside a magenta house when they heard someone blaring music from a speaker mounted to the tailgate of a red SUV and shouted and waved their arms as if in support of the pro-Biden parade. But when all the cars had moved on, they told the Miami Herald they’re wary of Biden and the Democrats, even if they’re not completely sold on Trump.

“We’re not in favor of everything Trump’s done,” said Montes de Oca, 33, who came to the U.S. from Cuba four years ago. “But many, many things are good.”

Biden’s ability to win Florida could hinge on his ability to win over more Cuban-American voters across the spectrum, including newer arrivals and Cuban Americans born in the U.S. Campaign strategists say older exiles who came to the U.S. decades ago are less likely to vote Democrat.

But even they were represented Saturday at Bright Park.

Sofia Venero, 78, said she’s supporting Biden because of Trump’s “racist policies.” She said she doesn’t buy into Trump’s socialism rhetoric about Biden even though three years before she came to the U.S. in 1965 government soldiers shot her boyfriend publicly in in Matanzas. Asked if she’s registered to a political party, she quickly stated: “Democrata, hasta la muerte” — Democrat until death.

A few cars over, Rosa Arias, a 63-year-old, Cuba-born Biden supporter, said she hopes Biden will stabilize the economy and fix America’s healthcare system. She said she’s been without employer-provided healthcare since leaving her position with a bank three years ago, and has been unable to afford Obamacare deductibles. But foremost on her mind, she said, is getting Trump out of office.

“I used to be middle class. Now I’m down at the bottom,” she said. “I was born in Cuba under Castro, so I know what a dictator looks like. Donald Trump is on his way, and we have to stop him. “

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©2020 Miami Herald