By BILL BARROW
MIAMI – Francis Suarez comes from a long line of civic and political leaders who have formed the Republican bedrock in south Florida’s Cuban community for a half-century. Yet the 38-year-old Miami city commissioner hasn’t decided whether he will vote for his party’s presidential nominee.
And he’s not alone. Many Florida Cuban-Americans ex- press solidarity with other Latin-Americans who see Donald Trump as anti-Hispanic. Still others hear in Trump’s nationalistic populism echoes of the government strongmen they once fled.
” There are aspects of Trump that appeal to parts of the Cuban-American culture: strong leadership, the ability and willingness to say bold things,” says Suarez, the son of a former Miami mayor and a potential chief executive himself. The concern, Suarez says, comes when Trump’s boorishness, bullying and slapdash policy pronouncements “cross the line from bold to wild, unpredictable.”
How those misgivings influence the votes of hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans could tilt the nation’s most populous presidential battleground state depending on circumstances elsewhere, determine whether Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the election.
Roberto Rodriguez Tejera, a well-known Spanish-language radio and television host in Miami, says he won’t endorse Trump or Clinton, arguing neither has engaged in genuine, personal outreach to average Cuban and other Hispanic voters. But Tejera asks his audiences to compare Trump’s assertions that “I am your voice” and “I alone can solve” societal ills to the initial appeals of authoritarian rulers like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
“It goes well beyond immigration to the very nature of our Latin-American problem,” Tejera said in an interview. “Many of us remember how it starts. It starts with questioning institutions. Then you destroy institutions – you being the only person in the world who can save the nation from collapse.”
Fernand Amandi, a Democratic south Florida pollster, estimates the Cuban-American vote could approach eight percent of the eight million-plus ballots cast in Florida in November. Amandi said Cuban-Americans are “the only Hispanic group in the country” to support Trump over Clinton in preference polling, but not by a margin victorious Republican nominees have managed.
Trump aides note support from some elected officials and volunteers within the Cuban-American community, but Trump adviser Karen Giorno said his strategy ultimately considers Cuban-Americans as it does anyone else: “They are worried about safety and security. They are worried about the economy. They are worried about drugs on the street. They are worried about the same things other Americans are worried about.”
Suarez, the Miami commissioner, applauds that approach, but he says it doesn’t account for some Cubans-Americans who are thinking of themselves, for the first time in presidential politics, as aligned with immigrants from Mexico and the nations of Central and South America – a collective class of people who have never enjoyed Cubans’ favored immigration status.
“Some Cubans don’t consider themselves Hispanic,” says Amandi, the Democratic pollster. But now, says Republican pollster Dario Moreno, Trump has made immigration a “symbolic issue” that penetrates the Cuban psyche. “Anti-immigration rhetoric is taken as anti-Hispanic,” Moreno said, “and you see that even among the old Cubans” who were the first to arrive in Florida as refugees after Castro came to power in 1959.
Clinton certainly sees an opening. In the last week, she launched an advertising blitz featuring the endorsement of Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American Republican and commerce secretary for President George W. Bush. Speaking in Spanish, Gutierrez calls Trump dangerous and says: “For me, it’s country first, and then party.”
One of the GOP’s top financiers, health-care billionaire Mike Fernandez, recently called Trump an “abysmally unfit candidate” and endorsed Clinton.
Other prominent Republicans – Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – have said they will not support Trump, though they’ve stopped short of endorsing Clinton.
Tejera, the broadcaster, says heavyweights like Gutierrez and Fernandez “won’t move one vote,” but their public backing of a Democratic nominee is a striking development in Cuban-American politics.