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Trump Campaign Battles Democrats for Latin Votes in Florida

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/18/2020 José de Córdoba
a man holding a sign © cristobal herrera-ulashkevich/Shutterstock

MIAMI—Trailing in polls in key swing states, President Trump needs Florida’s electoral votes. To help, he is courting the state’s Latino voters, particularly Cuban-Americans and voters from countries with leftist regimes like Venezuela and Nicaragua.

In a 30-second Spanish-language digital ad, Mr. Trump tries to tie his opponent, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, to a gallery of leftist Latin American strongmen. The ad says, without evidence, that Mr. Biden “is the candidate of Castrochavismo”—a term coined to describe the mix of Cuba’s totalitarian communism and Venezuela’s kleptocratic socialism.

The Biden campaign called the ad an attempt to manipulate voters. “Trump is playing on the pains, suffering and fears of these communities,” says Felice Gorordo, a Cuban-American who sits on the Biden campaign’s national finance committee.

The Trump administration has implemented policies favored by many such voters, imposing ever-tougher sanctions against both Cuba and Venezuela. The administration reversed the Obama policy of engagement with Cuba. It enacted broad and crippling economic sanctions against Venezuela, openly called for regime change in Caracas and even hinted at U.S. military action.

Critics characterize the government policy as focused on Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.

“In the past couple of years, it’s become absolutely clear that the only guiding star to our Latin America policy is re-election, no principle, no objective but the president’s re-election,” says Fernando Cutz, who directed Latin American affairs for national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster under Mr. Trump, and resigned in 2018 shortly after Mr. McMaster was fired.

National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot rejected Mr. Cutz’s criticisms.

“Mr. Cutz is simply deflecting blame from his own failure to implement President Trump’s bold policies,"  Mr. Ullyot said.

Mr. Biden holds an overall lead in the Hispanic vote in Florida, which accounts for nearly one in five registered Florida voters, by a 52% to a 36% margin, according to a recent poll by Latino Decisions for Univision News.

Biden’s biggest problem, polls show, is with Cuban-American voters, who make up about 30% of the state’s 2.4 million registered Hispanic voters.

Former President Barack Obama got 49% of the state’s Cuban-American voters in 2012, making big inroads into a group that has been faithful Republicans ever since Ronald Reagan’s muscular anticommunist rhetoric in the 1980s.

But Mr. Trump, who also courted Cuban-Americans heavily before the 2016 vote, has strong support, hitting a high of 68% last month before dropping to 61% in October among Cubans in Miami-Dade County, where most of them live, says pollster Fernand Amandi, a partner with Bendixen & Amandi International.

Mr. Biden hopes to make up any deficit in part by wooing Puerto Rican voters who have settled in the Orlando area, many of them since Hurricane Maria devastated the island three years ago. Numbering about 900,000, Puerto Ricans make up about a third of eligible Hispanic voters in Florida.

In his first campaign swing through Florida in September, Mr. Biden visited Kissimmee, a heavily Puerto Rican city, where he offered a plan to help the island recover. Three days after Mr. Biden’s visit, Mr. Trump announced his own $13 billion plan.

Weeks before the 2016 election, the president received the endorsement of Brigade 2506, the aging veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, who are revered by many in the tightknit Cuban exile community. He got the endorsement this year as well.

Alex Otaola, who came from Cuba to Miami in 2003 through a visa lottery, said he voted for Mr. Obama in 2012 but was turned off by the rise of Democratic progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Mr. Otaola, popular among recent Cuban arrivals who have been more sympathetic to Democrats, gets about 100,000 views a day for his YouTube show “Hola! Ota-Ola,” which plugs the president and attacks Mr. Biden.

“Sooner or later it will be the Democrats who will bring in Communist ideology into the U.S.,” says Mr. Otaola.

On Friday, Mr. Otaola met with Mr. Trump at his Doral property for a brief interview. “I think Cuba is going to be one of my greatest triumphs,” Mr. Trump told him.

Mr. Trump has also made an effort to build relations with the growing Venezuelan community.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida engineered a moment of great visibility for the Venezuelan opposition cause when he brought Lilian Tintori, the wife of then-imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López to an impromptu meeting at the White House in February of 2017. The next day, Mr. Trump tweeted a photograph of the meeting with Ms. Tintori, and demanded Venezuela free her husband.

Since then, a stream of U.S. officials including Mr. Trump himself, Vice President Mike Pence and then-national security adviser John Bolton, have visited Miami to meet with Cuban American politicians and Venezuelan exiled opposition leaders.

“We will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Mr. Pence told an audience of hundreds of Venezuelan Americans at a church in the Miami neighborhood of Doral, nicknamed Doralzuela, in 2017.

Days before the 2018 congressional midterm election, Mr. Bolton gave the Trump administration’s premier speech on Latin America at Miami’s Freedom Tower, where tens of thousands of Cuban refugees fleeing the Castro dictatorship were processed in the 1960s. In the speech, Mr. Bolton referred to the “Troika of Tyranny”—Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

The two candidates are also dueling for 250,000 Colombian-American voters in Florida, a majority of whom have traditionally voted Democratic. Mr. Trump noted that ex-Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla, has said he would vote for Mr. Biden if he could.

“Biden is supported by socialist Gustavo Petro, a major LOSER and former M-19 guerrilla leader. Biden is weak and will betray Colombia," Mr. Trump recently tweeted.

Mr. Biden countered with an article in El Tiempo, Colombia’s most important newspaper, underscoring his close ties to the country.

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com

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