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The new politics of Cuba

In Miami’s Little Havana, signs that Cubans are moving away from the GOP.

Cuban-Americans stand outside the landmark Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Cuban-Americans stand outside the landmark Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

MIAMI, FLORIDA — On the most well-known street in Little Havana, Miami’s Cuban neighborhood, there’s one spot where there’s always a crowd. And on Monday, with Election Day just one day away, that crowd was political.

Inside the doors of Versailles, a landmark Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho, customers ate Cuban sandwiches and drank cafecitos. And outside, Cuban volunteers for Hillary Clinton and local supporters of Donald Trump yelled competing chants, waving their candidate’s signs as cars drove by.

As the Latino population skyrockets in swing states like Florida, there’s been a lot of discussion, analysis, and polling regarding the Hispanic vote. Latino early voting turnout is up 100 percent here from 2012. And while Clinton holds an edge in support from the growing demographic, it’s Cuban voters who, some observers have hypothesized, could hand the state to Trump.

Cubans make up one-third of Miami’s population, and many older Cuban immigrants are dissatisfied with President Obama’s easing of diplomatic relations with their home country and his stance on the embargo.

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Miguel Saabdra, a Trump supporter, often protests the United States’ agreement with the regime of Cuban President Raul Castro. “He wants more freedom, more jobs, he wants a strong America,” he said of his favored candidate. “Hillary Clinton has many problems.”

Miguel Saabra says he’ll be voting for Trump. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Miguel Saabra says he’ll be voting for Trump. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Saabra said Trump’s rhetoric about Latino immigrants, whom he has referred to as criminals and rapists, doesn’t bother him because “if you want to come into the country, you’re supposed to go through immigration first.”

His friend, Gonzalo Lopez, added that Obama “is the worst president we’ve ever had.”

Trump has vowed to repeal Obama’s executive order that allowed for the deal with Cuba and has campaigned in Cuban neighborhoods.

For a while, it looked like his efforts would pay off. A New York Times Upshot poll released on October 30 had Trump leading Clinton 52 percent to 42 percent among Cuban Americans, who have been a solidly Republican voting bloc since President Ronald Reagan.

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But in Miami, there are signs that the GOP’s dominance among Cubans may not last much longer as their children and grandchildren begin to vote.

“People I think have a visceral reaction having escaped dictatorship to seeing the prospect of another one coming up.”

Nilda Mesa, a Cuban-American who came to Miami from New York to volunteer, said her canvassing across Little Havana has led her to disagree with reports that Cubans could give Florida to Trump.

“What I’m actually really excited about is how many support Hillary,” she said. “Fewer and fewer really support Trump. There’s a real shift.”

For many Cubans like Mesa, the prospect of a Trump presidency is especially hard to think about.

“People I think have a visceral reaction having escaped dictatorship to seeing the prospect of another one coming up,” she said.

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“We moved here to get away from the kind of strong-arm dictating, stuff that you find there,” she added. “I come from two generations of political refugees so to me, it’s vitally important that people get out to vote and make sure we keep out this extremism.”