Opinion Ana Menéndez Miami Herald
Cuban-American support for President Trump is the last revenge of Fidel Castro. And not just for the endlessly repeated observation that Fidel made “socialism” a dirty word. Fidel’s gift to Trump is more complicated, and if Democrats are ever to win over more Cubans, they’ll have to commit to understanding the mind warped by tyranny.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and jubilation filled the streets, my parents sat out the celebrations. “It’s a trick,” my father declared. Fidel had taught them to ignore the evidence before their own eyes. He’d injected them with a malignant cynicism that assumed that all leaders lie — often blatantly. And in their helplessness, they took refuge in the idea that the world was subject to all-powerful forces beyond their control.
At the start of Trump’s rise, I would despair that my own parents were seemingly blind to his autocratic bent: his demonization of enemies, his blatant lies, his dangerous attacks on democratic institutions (a tendency that has taken an even darker turn as a losing Trump trashes the electoral system in order to cling to power.)
What I had failed to understand, along with many fellow Democrats, is that autocracy is often the organizing structure of the mutilated body politic. The victims of dictatorship are forever vulnerable to its methods. One can observe the same paradox at work in other émigré communities.
Some on the American left have not helped matters with their sometimes uncritical support of repressive regimes. Bernie Sanders’ praise of Castro’s literacy campaign was a blunder. If you’re an anti-Trumper having trouble understanding why, imagine him seizing absolute power and forcing you into an exile where — years hence — some politician intones, “Say what you will about Trump, but at least he didn’t start any foreign wars.”
Like many Cubans, some Democrats have fallen victim to Cold War binaries that no longer speak to our world. We still talk of “left-wing” and “right-wing” dictatorships as if they weren’t books in the same malignant series. When you attack Trump while finding gems in Castro’s legacy, you’re saying that some autocracies are better than others. Which is exactly how Trump’s Cuban-American supporters — even those who acknowledge his anti-democratic tendencies — see his rule.
It’s important to emphasize that Cuban Americans did not hand the presidency to Trump (as too much post-election reaction had it): That dubious honor more rightfully goes to white women, 55% of whom, according to NBC News, voted for Trump. It’s important to note that his support in Florida also increased among other minority voters.
I can’t speak to how Democrats should engage voters from those groups. But I can implore them not to give up on Cuban Americans.
Instead, Democrats should emphasize their common ground with Cuban values. There are plenty of liberal Cuban Americans in Miami to help lead the way, starting with my friend Carmen Pelaez, who tirelessly led the Cubans for Biden campaign.
As I always remind my parents, I’m a liberal because of the way they raised me: to care for the poor, to work for social justice, to protect the environment. Cuban Americans have one of the highest sign-up rates for Obamacare. And everyone has an indigent Republican tio or abuelita on Medicaid or “disability.”
Yes, several heavily Cuban American districts helped hand Florida to Trump. But those same districts overwhelmingly voted to raise the minimum wage in Florida to $15 an hour — an initiative that passed thanks to their support.
My community has a lot of work to do. Racism remains endemic. Whiteness is celebrated, even by those who would not be considered white anywhere else. We are a people warped by colonialism and dictatorship and still profoundly alienated from ourselves. But our bedrock values remain surprisingly progressive, guided by José Martí’s conviction that we are free, but not to be indifferent to human suffering.
The Democratic Party would do well to engage the community on this deeper level: not as a separate and inscrutable “they”, but as equals in the fight for justice, always sensitive to the ways that exposure to tyranny can distort a peoples’ instincts of self-preservation. It’s training that will come in handy in the years to come as the Democrats begin to woo recovering Trump supporters as well.
Ana Menéndez, a writer and former journalist, is an associate professor with the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab and the Department of English at Florida International University.