Fidel and Maria: the ghosts that haunt Latino voters in Florida

·4 min read

The shadows of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico are looming large over Latino voters in Florida as they decide whether to back President Donald Trump or his Democratic challenger Joe Biden in November elections. 

The electoral clout of the Cuban community in Florida, heavily Republican and staunchly anti-Castro, has been a key factor in US politics for decades -- but this reality could be changing under Trump. 

After the recent financial crisis in Puerto Rico, a US territory, and subsequent havoc wreaked by Hurricane Maria, tens of thousands of people migrated from the Caribbean island to Florida and have shifted the southeastern state's demographic balance.

Taileen Nieves moved to Florida with her three-year-old son barely two months after Maria hit in September 2017, after prolonged electricity blackouts made her life impossible.

"It was very difficult, being alone with a child. And very dangerous," she said. Nowadays the 42-year-old lives in Auburndale, in central Florida, where she works for a podiatrist. 

"I had never been so long out of work. Ten months," she told AFP.

According to Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, "at the moment a million Puerto Rican voters are registered (in Florida), more or less the same number as Cubans." 

For that reason, the November 3 presidential election results in the state will be a partial reflection on Trump's handling of the aftermath of the hurricane, a storm that claimed several thousand lives according to government estimates.

For many, the memory is still fresh of the president casually lobbing rolls of paper towels to Puerto Ricans following the worst natural disaster in their history. 

Now, three years later, the Democratic Party is seeking to keep these memories alive. A campaign video shows images from the disaster with Puerto Rican singer Bad Bunny's "Pero ya no" ("But not anymore") playing in the background. 

On Tuesday Biden visited Kissimmee, a bastion of Puerto Ricans close to Orlando, where he voiced support for Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state in the union.

"I believe statehood would be the most effective means of ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally, with equal representation at the federal level," the former vice president said.

Visitors to Kissimmee are greeted by the sight of an enormous billboard showing Trump throwing paper towels with the logo: "Never forget."

Nevertheless, it is impossible to predict what their participation in the election will look like.

- Anti-left rhetoric -

Cuban support for the Republican president, meanwhile, has only grown since 2016.

An NBC News/Marist poll showed that Trump and Biden are more or less neck and neck in Florida, with the president enjoying a slight advantage among Latino voters by 50 to 46 percent. 

During his term, Trump has won over Cubans and Venezuelans, and by extension the majority of the ultra-conservative Latino community, with his tough rhetoric against left-wing countries in the region.

In a move to counteract Trump's strength among Latino voters in Florida, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who ran unsuccessfully against Biden for the Democratic nomination -- said he would be donating $100 million towards Biden's efforts in the state. 

"Here there is a weight given to the Trump campaign's idea that Biden and the Democrats represent socialism," Duany said. "This strategy has a certain resonance and the Democrats are trying to refute it."

In the rest of the country, where Latinos are mostly of Mexican and Central American origin, political issues coalesce around immigration, in which Trump has shown himself to be particularly tough.  

For that reason, some 66 percent of Latinos nationwide had an unfavorable view of the president in September, according to Latino Decisions.

And in November for the first time ever, Latinos will be the largest ethnic minority group in the elections, representing 13 percent of those eligible to cast their ballot, the Pew Research Center said.

The result in Florida will be crucial to the election's outcome. With 14 million voters, it is the largest of the swing states and has 29 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the White House. 

The results tend to be so close in the state that recounts are frequent, meaning every ballot is potentially a crucial vote.