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Democrats Hope To Sway Florida's Cuban-American Voting Bloc Amid Civil Unrest

"I Voted" sticker
Vox EfX via Flickr

Florida is a battleground state and home to many Cuban-Americans, who make up a powerful and historically conservative voting bloc. But with the polarization caused by the Trump administration and the leftward shift of some Democrats, that block may be changing its shape.

Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders set off an eruption in Florida when he said the unspeakable.

“When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Sanders, answering Anderson’s Cooper’s question about his past remarks on Cuba for an interview on 60 Minutes, appeared to praise Cuba’s former dictator. And while he went on to condemn the Cuban government’s authoritarianism, he struck a nerve that was over half a century in the making.

Sanders’s interview aired on a Sunday night. By Monday, the hashtag #BernieIsACommunist was trending on Twitter. Weeks later, he lost to Joe Biden in Florida’s democratic presidential primary. Biden is now the party’s nominee.

"I used to think I was a Republican until I was about 15, and then the 2016 election happened, which is when I realized, yeah, I'm probably a Democrat. I was not raised like that at all, said Florida State University student Sam McLoughlin. She says growing up, her father’s Cuban family was pretty conservative. Fox News was the only news channel on at home, and that formed her early political perspective.

“It was like, I was never presented with any other option. There just was not any other option."

Her preferred candidate in the primary was Elizabeth Warren but by Florida’s March primary, Warren was out of the race. So, McLoughlin voted for Sanders. But she recognizes his words on Castro were problematic.

“It’s always been a thing in my family, like, politicians should never say anything nice about Castro. I understand why he said it, and what he said was technically true, but he could have used any other country. It’s a sore spot.”

McLaughlin says her father and her grandmother, who are lifelong Republicans and were both upset at Senator Sanders’s comments, are taking different directions this election year:

“My grandmother just cannot vote for Trump. I asked her about the Democratic candidates and was like, who are you going to vote for, and she was like Elizabeth Warren is smart but she’s too far left. Bernie is way too far left, I think I’ll vote for Biden. My dad’s voting for Trump, he has no doubts in mind.”

In order to understand that sore spot, you have to take a look at the history of Cuban migration to the United States.

Cuban Exiles fled to the U.S after the Cuban Revolution, which led to Fidel Castro’s presidency. Private property was seized, and political dissidents were imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or killed. The Cubans who left were largely middle-to-upper-class, white, and college-educated.

“They weren't decidedly poor, they were people who were having property taken away, they were more affluent than your typical immigrant. They were highly anti-Communist, and highly supportive of the Republican Party,” said Brad Gomez, a political science professor at FSU who researches public opinion and voting behavior. He says the demographics of the first generation of Cuban Americans makes them stand out from other groups of immigrants.

“What we’re seeing now with the younger generation of Cuban-American voters don’t have that tie to that anti-Communist past, and seem to align themselves with the Democratic Party.”

Gomez says this generational shift started about a decade ago, during Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.

“The younger Cuban-American voters were moving toward the Democratic Party. In Obama’s reelection, the Cuban vote in FL went to the Democrats, which was highly unusual—we hadn’t really seen that before. If you break down that data by age, you can see the gap. As the age gets higher, Cubans still vote Republican, but as you look at the younger ages, what you see is generational replacement as that group begins to die off. It’s a gradual line.”

But just as the trend of second and third-generation Cubans voting Democrat emerged, the 2016 election happened.

“In 2016, we saw that the [Cuban] vote in FL swung back to the Republican side. That was potentially driven by higher levels of turnout among older Cuban-American voters. The major difference in turnout in the Obama elections was the youth vote. Among 18-25 the turnout was at a historic high, then went back down in 2016.”

Gomez thinks the 2016 Presidential Election was more about older Cubans’ support for President Donald Trump, not younger generations changing how they were voting. He noted that between the generations, there was a stronger partisan divide that year, and says compared to other Latino voters, Cubans tend to have a higher turnout in general. That means in a state like Florida, their voice matters.

Rey Anthony was born and raised in Miami, and grew up hearing his grandparents’ stories about fleeing Cuba, which shaped the way he views politics.

“It made me passionate for a place I’ve never been to. I think I was born a Republican,” he laughs.

Anthony says what drew him to the Republican Party was its stance against Communism and support for low taxes.

“You know a Republican politician in Miami is going to be against Communism in Cuba and Venezuela and emphasizing low taxes. You know Cubans are always figuring out ways to not have to pay taxes.”

Looking forward, Anthony says that although not everyone in the community likes Trump’s temperament, there’s no questioning support for the GOP.

“The passion is on the side of the people who want more sanctions and freedom for the island.”

Cuban American support for President Trump isn’t limited to Miami; Eddie Agramonte is the owner of Gordo’s, a Cuban restaurant in Tallahassee. He’s in his 50’s and has been a conservative for most of his adult life. His support for Trump comes from his dislike of the Obama administration’s policies.

“What I didn’t like was Obamacare. I’ve been responsible for my insurance my whole life, why can’t they be responsible for their own?”

The Cuban influence is also heavy in state politics. State Republican Senator Manny Diaz pushed a bill during the 2020 legislative session aimed at condemning democratic socialism during the height of Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

“The further removed you are from that, the harder it is for newer generations to understand it. So socialism may sound cool… they have a different view of it—they think it’s the sharing and helping each other out—that’s all great. That can all happen in our system today because you do it voluntarily, not because the government came and took something you earned and gave it to someone else.”

While some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle signed the resolution, it failed to pass this March.

In 2018, when Republican Ron DeSantis ran for Governor of Florida, his platform was similar to President Trump’s, to his success. He won at a higher percentage than Trump did just two years earlier in some counties. And in Miami’s most Cuban-dominated precincts, he won twice as many votes as Democrat Andrew Gillum. It also didn’t hurt that his pick for Lieutenant Governor was Jeannette Nuñez, a Cuban-American who represented Miami-Dade in the State House.

Despite the stay-at-home orders and cancellation of major events, 2020 is still an election year- and Democrats are trying to make inroads with this key voting bloc.

“It’s not a question of if Biden will win, it’s a matter of by how much,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who represents a majority Cuban-American district as a Democrat. She says while her constituents are conservative, President Trump’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests in honor of George Floyd are making them re-think who they’re voting for in November.

“Seeing the police fire at protestors, talking about sending the military in- this is stuff they’ve seen in Venezuela and Cuba- and his response to the pandemic, they haven’t liked. To them, it’s not always about the party, it’s about doing the right thing.”

Editor's Note: When colleges and universities closed in March, most students returned home. This hasn’t been an extended Spring Break for students. Many had internships lined up for the summer that were canceled. Among those affected, WFSU News intern Victoria Dominguez, who reported this story from her home in South Florida.