WASHINGTON – A revered Cuban American and Bay of Pigs veteran scolds President Donald Trump over his reported attacks on fallen American’s soldiers in a scorching a new ad funded by New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s political action committee.
“Trump, the only real ‘loser,’ will be you,” Santiago Morales says in the Spanish-language spot, in which Morales recounts his own time as a political prisoner in Cuba. “I’m no ‘sucker’.”
The ad refers to a story in The Atlantic, which reported that Trump repeatedly disparaged members of the military and described America’s war dead as “losers” and “suckers” – accusations the president has angrily denied.
It’s one of two ads, both featuring Morales, aimed at bolstering Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s support among Cuban American voters in the pivotal state of Florida. Bloomberg’s PAC, called Independence USA, is spending nearly $1 million on the two spots, which will run through Election Day, said Manny Diaz, a former Miami mayor who is advising Bloomberg’s operation in Florida,
The polls and the pundits say Cuban Americans overwhelmingly support Trump and that his hardline policies against Havana will help him clinch a victory in the pivotal state of Florida.
But a small band of Cuban American Democrats, including Diaz, are scrambling to upend conventional wisdom.
Take Daniela Ferrera, a 22-year-old Cuban immigrant and co-founder of “Cubanos Con Biden,” a passionate band of pro-Biden activists trying to help the former vice president win the Sunshine State.
“The Cuban American community is waking up and we’re saying saying ‘No mas’,” Ferrera said.
She and others in her group have been organizing pro-Biden caravans and other activities to rev up support for the Democratic presidential nominee in Florida, where polls show Trump and Biden in a virtual dead heat. Trump won the state in 2016 with significant help from Cuban American voters.
A former Republican herself, Ferrera and her allies are out to upend conventional wisdom about Cuban Americans being lock step, hard core Republicans.
“There’s a silent majority that is brewing amongst the Latino community, specifically the Cuban, Venezuelan and (Nicaraguans), that I don’t think the polling is showing,” Ferrera said. She said she often gets a half-dozen messages a day from other Latinos who say they, too, support Biden – but not openly because of the likely conflict and criticism it would bring from family and friends.
Wishful thinking for Biden supporters?
But Trump allies say that seems like wishful thinking.
“We feel very confident that we have a strong hold on the Cuban American vote,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a senior Trump campaign adviser and a Cuban American whose father was jailed by the Castro regime. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking to the community.”
Schlapp said Biden’s embrace of “far left” positions is a trigger for many Cuban Americans who fear socialist policies. Trump has been “a lot tougher on Cuba and Venezuela than Joe Biden would be,” she said.
Cuban Americans hold particularly strong sway in Florida as the state’s single biggest Hispanic ethnicity. They have historically leaned Republican, and there’s little indication this election will be dramatically different.
A poll conducted in early October, by Bendixen & Amandi International and the Miami Herald, found 61% of Cuban Americans favor Trump, compared to 35% for Biden. That was a slight shift in Biden’s favor compared to a month ago, when the poll showed Trump with 68% support from Cuban Americans and Biden at 30%.
“It wasn’t a sea change by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a noticeable shift,” said Fernand Amandi, a principal with Bendixen, whose firm made the new anti-Trump ads. He said it was due to a few factors, most notably a “night and day difference” from the Biden campaign in its outreach to Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade after the first poll was released.
“In the span of that four weeks, Joe Biden himself came to cultivate Hispanic voters in Florida personally three times,” Amandi noted, referring to trips the Democratic nominee made to Miami – including Little Havana – as well as Tampa and elsewhere.
Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, also paid a visit to the state, and the campaign also increased its advertising on radio and TV, he said. And Harris was back in Florida on Monday as residents of the state began early voting.
“You guys are going to determine the outcome of this election,” Harris told a crowd in Jacksonville.
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Several other players have also stepped in – including Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor who announced in September he would spent at least $100 million to help Biden in Florida.
Before the TV ads went up on Tuesday, Diaz said Bloomberg’s operation in Florida had also invested in phone banking and other field work and may soon include TV and radio ads. He said Biden has room to grow his support among Cuban Americans, but the campaign needs to ramp up and respond to Trump’s attacks in the state.
“Trump has invested a tremendous amount of money and reaching out to the community,” Diaz said.
Trump’s tough stance on Cuba’s communist government is generally popular with Cuban Americans, as well as with other Hispanics whose families who fled socialist regimes in Latin America.
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Frank Mora, a politics and international relations professor at Florida International University, said several polls show about 12% of Cuban Americans remain undecided or undeclared. He said it’s too soon to tell if Biden will win them over, but “Donald Trump seems to have a ceiling of about 58 to 60% of the Cuban American electorate.”
Trump slams Biden at Bay of Pigs event
No Republican presidential candidate has won the White House in nearly a century without carrying Florida – a state also known for its razor-thin election margins.
In its push to win Florida, the Trump campaign has blasted Biden as a socialist who will turn the United States into a failed state – playing on the fears of Cubans who fled the brutal Castro regime and lost much of their property and wealth in the process.
At a Sept. 23 event honoring Bay of Pigs veterans, Trump vowed to “defeat communism and socialism” in Cuba – and in the U.S. “We’re in the process of doing it right now … and we are meeting it with great force,” he said.
Biden calls the “socialist” label absurd, noting his record as a moderate who won the Democratic nomination by edging out more liberal candidates.
“I’m the guy who ran against the socialist,” the former vice president said during an Oct. 5 town hall in Miami, referring to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I’ve taken on the Castros of this world, the Putins of this world.”
It’s not just a war of words, but also of competing policies. In 2014, the Obama administration ushered in a thaw in relations with the communist island, expanding trade with Cuba, easing travel restrictions and paving the way for an exchange of embassies in Havana and Washington.
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Trump called the diplomatic detente “one-sided,” rolled back many of the changes, and slapped a bevy of sanctions on Cuba. In September, he issued an order barring Americans who visit Cuba from staying at 433 hotels that it said were owned or controlled by the government or other regime insiders. In earlier moves, he prohibited cruise ships from visiting the island, banned flights to all Cuban cities except Havana, and ordered Marriott to close its Four Points Sheraton hotel in the capital city.
Biden has promised to reverse Trump’s reversal.
“The administration’s approach is not working. Cuba is no closer to democracy than it was four years ago,” Biden said during his Oct. 5 visit to the state.
Mora said many Cubans in Florida had warmed to Obama’s diplomatic opening with Cuba but have since shifted back to favor Trump’s tougher approach. A Florida International University survey taken over the summer found that 66 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami Dade County expressed overall support for Trump’s Cuba policy, although they did not like several specific changes, including the flight and visa restrictions.
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That poll concluded Trump could expect to get 59% of the Cuban-American vote in November. Schlapp noted that Trump has been able to win back a slice of younger Cuban Americans who drifted toward the Democrats during Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House. She said that’s due to Trump’s hard line on Cuba, as well as his domestic policies that have rolled back regulations and cut taxes.
The FIU poll found the economy ranked as the most important policy issue among all Cuban Americans except those over 76 years old, a group that rated health care at the top of their list. “Cuba policy is ranked the sixth, that is to say, last in importance, by three of the four age groupings,” the FIU researches noted.
But for Ferrera, Trump’s crackdown on Cuba has been personal. The Trump administration has limited Cuban Americans’ ability to send money to family who still live in Cuba, which for Ferrera includes her half sister and a baby niece.
“My sister, she doesn’t have access to eyeglasses, and there’s no way for me to send glasses to her because of the restrictions on remittances,” she said. “The new restrictions that have been put in place, they don’t hurt the regime. They hurt the Cuban people.”
Ferrera came to Cuba with her parents when she was three years old. A relative in Miami picked them up in a boat after her father, a small businessman, was repeatedly jailed by the Castro government.
Her father’s transgressions? “He had a little movie theater, and he would have people come to see pirated movies from the U.S.” He wasn’t supposed to have a business, let alone promote anything from the United States.
“No one has to explain to me what socialism, communism or authoritarianism are. I mean, my family and I, we lived it,” Ferrera said. Like so many other Cuban Americans, the life lessons of fleeing oppression and building a new life in a foreign land made her acutely aware of and engaged in politics.
A ‘Never Trumper’ who left the GOP
When she was 14, she volunteered for GOP candidates in Miami. She knocked on doors, made thousands of phone calls and idolized Cuban American politicians like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a now-retired GOP congresswoman, and Sen. Marco Rubio.
“I was just so excited about what the future of the party was going to look like,” she recalled.
Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign changed that. Ferrera says she was a “Never Trumper from Day 1” and has become disillusioned with Rubio and other Republicans. She switched her voter registration to Democrat in 2018.
In this election, she and other pro-Biden Cuban Americans helped form the Cubanos Con Biden group after becoming fed up with “socialist” and “communist” epithets that Republicans were throwing at Democrats.
Mike Rivero, 30, said they felt like outliers at first. But they started a Facebook group in May, and membership swelled to 13,000 members. When they started doing caravans, they initially had 30 to 40 cars coming to pro-Biden events. Their last one, a week ago, was over 300, he said.
“The support is there. It’s building,” Rivero said.
Amore Rodriguez, 27, said she’s been ostracized by much of her family after being raised as a “hard-core Republican” and switching parties. She only did so after some serious soul searching prompted by an online quiz she took in college during the 2016 campaign, to figure out which presidential candidate was a good fit for her beliefs.
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She was shocked when the results popped up: Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist.
“It was the biggest dissonance that I’ve ever experienced,” Rodriguez said, adding that her first instinct was to retake the quiz. “That was the first time I had to like really look in the mirror and say ‘What do you actually believe in?”
Her upbringing had been all about patriotism and cherishing America’s freedoms – one of which, she concluded, was forming her own opinions and expressing them.
“That led to a lot of arguments,” Rodriguez said. “My grandmother told me ‘I’ve never been more ashamed of you … I used to be so proud of you’.”
That still stings, Rodriguez said, but now “I’ve been creating so many connections with liberal Cubans dying to find each other.”
How much impact they will have remains be to be seen.
But, said Ferrera, “As a former Republican, I feel at home in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ party.”
Contributing: Alan Gomez, Rebecca Morin, Ledyard King
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: Is Biden making inroads with Cuban American voters?