Election 2020

Foreign Affairs Was Key to the Latino Vote in Florida

If the Latino vote is to determine America’s future, it might help both parties to look southward and attempt to understand the people they want to sway on their own terms.


For Republicans, catering to South Florida's Latino vote used to mean reaching out to the Cuban community in Miami-Dade County. This required a candidate to visit Café Versailles on Calle 8, whose denizens tend to like a cortaditothe Cuban version of an espressoand a hard line against the regime established by Fidel Castro. 

In 2020, however, it became apparent to both Republicans and Democrats that the Cubans aren't the only game in town.

Colombian Americans are now the second-largest Hispanic community in Miami-Dade County, according to the County's Commission, with 114,701 residents in the 2010 Census. In the state of Florida, Colombians rank third behind Cubans and Puerto Ricans in terms of Latin American voter registration according to Equis Research. Venezuelan-Americans rank seventh in terms of Florida voters of Latin American descent, but, as the Miami Herald reports, their numbers increased 352 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2017. As the Democrats in particular learned last week, these other Latin American blocs tend to dislike a lurch toward socialism as much as any long-established Cuban emigré.

Thus, it was easy enough for Donald Trump to appeal to both communities in Florida by assailing "Castro-Chavismo." Latin American progressives despise and ridicule this term as an electioneering bogeyman, yet the Cuban regime and the cadre that misrules Venezuela act as one: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is in power thanks to help from a ruthless Cuban security apparatus, and Cuba's economy is kept afloat with Venezuelan oil subsidies. 

What's more, Fidel Castro did have clear regional ambitions. It was no fluke that his henchman, Ernesto "El Che" Guevara, was gunned down while attempting to spur a socialist revolution in Bolivia. Castro eyed Venezuela's oil wealth since he took power in Cuba, and he mentored former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at least since 1994. Once he controlled Venezuela's vast resources, Chávez followed Castro's lead and intervened in almost every country in the hemisphere under an "anti-imperialist" banner. To label such a project of regional dominance with its architects' surnames is accurate. 

Meanwhile, the degree to which Trump exploited current Colombian politics in order to gain votes in Florida was remarkable. At a rally in Jacksonville on September 25th, for instance, Trump attacked "the Obama-Biden-Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels," which he described as "a surrender to the narco-terrorists." He was referring to the supposed peace deal between former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia's communist FARC guerrillas, widely acknowledged as the world's largest drug trafficking organization.

The issue is contentious because Santos, who began negotiating with the FARC soon after taking office in 2010, declared a referendum in 2016 where he presented voters with the chance to approve a peace deal with the FARC. Both Santos and many pollsters assumed that a vast majority of Colombians would ratify his deal, which was hammered out in Cuba—with Venezuela as an "accompanying country"—and included 10 non-elected seats for FARC leaders in Colombia's Congress. On October 2nd of that year, however, 50 percent of voters rejected the Santos-FARC deal. The former president proceeded to ram the agreement through Congress, where he held a sizable majority.

Since then, the FARC themselves have lent further blows to the deal's questionable democratic legitimacy. Ivan Marquez and Jesus Santrich, two of the FARC's top negotiators who met with the Santos government in Havana, were accused of trafficking drugs after the agreement was reached. Instead of taking up their free seats in Congress, they went into hiding and renewed their war against the Colombian government. Far from an exception, though, Marquez and Santrich are part of the 4,600 FARC "dissidents" who are still up in arms according to the Colombian Defense Ministry. As some critics of the agreement maintained during the referendum campaign, the Santos-FARC deal wasn't about peace; it was about power and impunity for guerrilla bosses. 

Cannily, Trump linked the Obama-Biden administration to the FARC deal because one of its crucial components was support from the U.S. government. This was in line with Obama's main priority in Latin America, namely normalizing relations with the Cuban regime, which was the main broker between Santos and the FARC. Since Venezuela was also involved in the negotiations, the Obama and Santos administrations legitimized Nicolás Maduro's autocracy just when its methods of repression were becoming most brutal. In turn, Trump's critique of the FARC deal buttressed his hard stance against both Cuba and Venezuela. In Florida, this combination proved politically successful.

Colombia's political scandal du jour also lent Trump an opportunity. On August 4, the Colombian Supreme Court put former president Alvaro Uribe under house arrest during an ongoing investigation into his alleged witness tampering. Uribe, who governed Colombia from 2002 to 2010, is best known for leading a successful military onslaught against the FARC when they were at the height of their power. Although often labeled a "neoliberal" in the international press, Uribe's policies combine elements of social and Christian democracy with heavy doses of protectionism and state meddling in the economy. The former president himself denounces "neoliberalism" for purportedly neglecting the community; in its stead, he promotes what he calls the "communitarian state," a pleonasm that justifies massive redistribution schemes.

Despite their ideological affinities, the Colombian left has never forgiven Uribe for combating the FARC and standing up to Hugo Chávez. Although his approval ratings have fallen steeply as of late in Colombia, he remains popular among expats in the United States. While Uribe was maneuvering his way out of house arrest by resigning from the Colombian Senate, which meant his case passed from the Supreme Court's jurisdiction to that of the Attorney General (who was conveniently named by the current pro-Uribe president), Miami-Dade County commissioners decided to rename 117th Avenue S.E. "Alvaro Uribe Way." The former president, argued the Commission, "has made direct, significant lifetime contributions to (the Colombian American) community."

Vice President Mike Pence echoed this sentiment on August 14, when he praised Uribe as a hero and called for the Colombian authorities to allow him to "defend himself as a free man." On October 10, when a municipal judge ruled that Uribe should be free while he stands trial, Trump himself congratulated him on Twitter, where he lauded Uribe as "an ally of our Country in the fight against CASTRO-CHAVISMO." Trump also stated that he would "always stand with our Colombian friends!"

Unsurprisingly, leftist politicians in Colombia proceeded to denounce American interventionism in national politics, although many of them soon intervened in the U.S. election by openly supporting Biden. Claudia Lopez, the Green Party mayor of Bogota, went as far as declaring "we won" when the media announced Biden's victory. In turn, high profile "Uribista" politicians campaigned publicly for Trump. Juan David Vélez, a member of Uribe's party who represents Colombians living abroad in the Colombian House of Representatives, is a dual citizen who voted for Trump and promoted his reelection, thus highlighting how blurred the boundaries of national politics have become. Perhaps ironically, the Trump camp appeared to benefit a good deal from porous borders. 

On October 7, the Biden campaign made a direct appeal to the Colombian American vote when their candidate penned an op-ed in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Colombia, Biden assured, "is the keystone of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean." Biden also emphasized his support in the Senate for Plan Colombia, a military aid program launched under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations in order to fend off the FARC. This message was ineffective, not least because of the recent rise of an avowedly socialist wing within the Democratic Party.

The Washington Post's Lizette Alvarez attributes Trump's gains in Miami-Dade County, where he increased his share of the 2016 vote by 23 percentage points, to his tough talk against Maduro and his message "that a vote for Biden was a vote for the hardcore, liberty-stealing, privacy-filching socialism they had fled." But the result might also reveal weaknesses in the broader left-wing narrative beyond the attempt to sell collectivist policies to those who escaped their devastation. 

In the Colombian case in particular, race-obsessed politics falls flat. In the territory that became Colombia, historian David Bushnell wrote, an "extensive assimilation" of indigenous people into the Spanish colonial structure "categorically reduced a potential obstacle for national integration." Since the rise of its independence movement, the country's politics has created strong divisions along mostly ideological and sometimes religious lines, but seldom if ever racial ones.

Respice polum ("look to the north"), former Colombian president Marco Fidel Suarez (1918–1921) advised his countrymen, a reference to the growing power and influence of the United States. If the Latino vote is to determine America's future, it might help both parties to look southward and attempt to understand the people they want to sway on their own terms.