Trump Disrupts Cuban-American Politics

The Republican front-runner’s supporters in Florida are looking for change, but his appeal also reveals a shift in identity.

Gerald Herbert / AP

This primary cycle should have been unifying for conservative Cuban Americans in Miami: one of their own was running for the GOP presidential nomination. Jeb Bush may have been more popular than Marco Rubio among Florida’s Cubans, but Bush’s exit from the race should have cleared the path for Rubio to claim a large majority of their vote. How could it be that a Miami-born-and-raised Cuban American who vociferously opposes any rapprochement with Cuba did not win more than 62 percent of Republican Cubans? Why did nearly a fifth of Cuban American Republicans vote for Donald Trump, instead?

Marco Rubio won 62 percent of Florida’s Cuban American vote, to Donald Trump’s 18 percent and Ted Cruz’s 13 percent, according to exit polls on Tuesday. Other recent candidates have claimed similar shares. Exit polls in 2012 showed Mitt Romney winning 57 percent of Florida’s Cubans compared to Newt Gingrich’s 31 percent, and in 2008 John McCain won 54 percent to Rudy Giuliani’s 32 percent.

But the glaring difference between Tuesday’s results and every contested Florida Republican presidential primary since 1980—when Cuban Americans overwhelmingly backed Ronald Reagan—is that the majority of Cuban Americans voted for a candidate who didn’t go on to win the Republican nomination (Rubio dropped out of the race after a second-place finish in the state).

On the eve of Florida’s primary, I visited Versailles Restaurant, a popular hang out on 8th Street in Little Havana where locals gather and engage in political discourse with a breezy formality to match their linen outfits. Five Cuban American men stood in a semi-circle near the counter. One of the men, a Rubio supporter, was about to dive into his opinion about immigration.

“Look,” he said in Spanish with a heavy Cuban inflection, “we are Hispanics—.”

“No, no,” interrupted another. “don’t call us Hispanics. We are not a part of that. We are American.” He supported Trump, the only one in the group who did.

A similar sentiment was expressed on primary day by volunteers for the Trump campaign gathered outside the polling station in West Dade Regional Library. There, volunteers milled under the shade of their blue tent. “We are not interested in ethnic politics. The media tries to divide people into groups. I am here—we are here because we are Americans first,” Juan Fiol, the vice chairman of Miami-Dade County for Trump, told me. Fiol was born in the U.S. to Cuban refugees.

For Miami Republicans like Fiol and many of the others I spoke with, to eschew the “Cuban American” label in favor of  “American” represents a significant break from the conservative tradition of uniting Cuban and American nationalism. The consensus built by Jorge Mas Canosa, the powerful leader of the Cuban exile community who died in 1997, centered on the thesis that the best way to defeat Fidel Castro and win the homeland was to be staunchly pro-American. American nationalism, then, was the path to the success of Cuban nationalism, the real concern of Cuban Americans of his generation.

That thesis still has a powerful, though diminishing, grip on Miami Cubans to this day. But it appears to have little sway over Trump supporters of Cuban descent. They’re focused on another fight.

“We are at odds with GOP elites, not the GOP itself,” said Juan Palomino, 58, another Trump volunteer and, like Fiol, the son of Cuban refugees. “I am not going to switch parties. I will stick with Trump whether or not he gets the nomination. The Republicans need to take their medicine.” Exit polls in Florida also showed Trump winning 40 percent of voters who felt angry with the federal government and those who favored an outsider.

Ernie Peyno, 55, who came to the tent after casting his ballot for Trump to pick up some lawn signs and stickers, concurred. “I’m tired of the establishment. It’s corrupt and controlled by lobbyists. We need somebody independent of all that and who speaks his mind.”

None of the Trump volunteers I spoke with felt any strong animosity towards Marco Rubio. They simply didn’t believe he would bring the kind of change they are looking for. “I keep hearing from Rubio supporters that they are voting for him because he is Cuban,” said Yamilee Palomino, 40, Juan’s wife. “We need to vote for America, not where you came from.”

Juan Palomino chimed in, saying he drives motorcycles with a group of employees in Trump’s Doral golf resort. “They all love him. Trump sits with them during lunch,” he told me. “One guy accidentally spilled scalding hot coffee all over himself and Trump paid for his medical bills and bought him a new suit. He’s a nice guy, but he’s also a businessman so he has to be tough. America is run by big business and Trump knows how it works so he’ll know how to bring jobs back.”

Yamilee Palomino lost her job last year and has been unable to find a new job. The company she worked for relocated to Mexico. “It’s frustrating,” she said holding on to her young daughter. “Juan is retired and on disability [from his military service] and I’m trying to qualify for food stamps. I know I’m being given less help than I should.” She and her husband strongly believe that a Trump presidency will bring a better economy because of his business background and his integrity. “He does not need to be doing what he’s doing. He’s not making money off his campaign. He’s doing it because he really believes in this country,” Juan Palomino said.

The Cuban American Trump supporters I found debating at Versailles Restaurant, voting at West Dade Regional Library, and volunteering for the campaign ranged in age from 49 and 93. They were both Cuban-born and U.S.-born. I didn’t find any Cuban Americans younger than 40 supporting a Republican candidate—evidence of a growing partisan gap between younger and older Cubans.

But the difference lies primarily on the issues they prioritize. Old exiles supporting Rubio, when presented with any political topic, found a connection, no matter the distance or logical hazards, to Cuba and Castro. Old exile Trump backers consistently went the opposite direction. Even with the embargo as a starting point, it would not be long before they arrived at immigration or the economy or the decline of America generally. For someone long-acquainted with conservative Cuban American politics, that is tantamount to reversing the flow of a waterfall.

On some issues, like immigration, Cuban American supporters of Trump are little different than the traditional Cuban GOP base. Both are wary of immigrants from economically destitute Latin American countries, including Cuba. “Cubans who arrived here after 1980 came for economic reasons, not because of political repression, so they should be treated the same as any other immigrant. A lot of them come in, collect benefits, and then go right back to Cuba. That’s not fair,” said Jorge Garcia, 64, a Trump supporter in Versailles.

For Juan Palomino the emphasis was on putting an end to illegal immigration and encouraging assimilation. “Unless you have Native American blood, you are an immigrant. America is a melting pot and that’s what makes this country great,” he said. “You are welcome here but it has to be about the U.S. I don’t have a country anymore—Cuba is long gone, it has nothing to do with me. I served in our military so [the United States] is it.”