Editor’s Note: Alexandra Martinez is an award-winning Cuban American writer based in Miami, Florida. Her work has appeared in Vice, Catapult Magazine, and Miami New Times. Find her at alexandra-martinez.net. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
On a blistering August morning in 1973, my grandparents, mom and aunt left Cuba. My maternal grandparents had met as a result of the Revolution; my abuela (grandmother) was a volunteer teacher in the literacy movement, and my abuelo (grandfather) was a technician and organizer who helped remove the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and was exiled to Venezuela.
After 1959, he was allowed to return and was celebrated by the Revolution. As the years passed, their living conditions and civil liberties withered. It became abundantly clear that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro would not uphold the rights of the people they had fought for. They spent five years being called gusanos (worms) while my abuelo labored in a forced-work agricultural camp to earn his family’s exit. When they were granted permission to leave, they left behind everything they had ever known: generations of family, their homes, and a bittersweet love for their island. Their only solace was the flickering thought that their young daughters would have a better life.
Today, my 80-year-old abuela lives in her dream home in the predominantly Latino suburb of Miami, Kendall, a house she and my late abuelo built as the fruit of their decades of labor, wistful regret, and trauma after leaving their homeland. Her story is not unlike those of others in Miami’s Cuban-born community, which in 2017 accounted for more than a quarter of Miami-Dade County’s population and six percent of Florida’s voting power, according to 2016 exit polls.
We are a community that values democracy and freedom – a community that historically has backed Republicans but whose best interests lie with Joe Biden, not Donald Trump.
Cuban Americans have leaned to the Republican Party, given its harder anti-communist line and its tougher stands on the Castro regime. After losing everything to Castro, older generations have clung on to America’s embargo on Cuba as a form of retribution. President Barack Obama’s moves to open ties with Cuba and thaw relations were met with skepticism.
A fraught history
The relationship between Cuba and the US has been fraught since the Revolution. Beginning in 1961, when the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred, Castro and his government made sure his citizens knew they were under a constant threat of attack. My grandparents had just gotten married in Cuba and would soon give birth to their first daughter amid an atmosphere that my abuela refers to as “eternally frenetic.” One day she asked, “When will things go back to normal everyday life?” It wouldn’t.
By 1978, my grandparents were already living in Miami when President Jimmy Carter made the controversial decision to relax restrictions on travel to Cuba. My grandparents missed their family after five years away and saved money to go to the island.
They went in December 1979 and were treated like foreigners, obligated to rent a hotel even though they would sleep at their family’s centuries-old home in Marianao, a Havana neighborhood. My grandmother’s longing for her island life was met with a rude awakening: Everything had changed, she says. On their flight back to Miami, she closed the door to Cuba in her mind, deciding she would never return.
Months later, Castro released thousands of political prisoners, then convicted criminals, and other so-called “undesirables” as he deemed them, and Carter welcomed them to the US. The infamous “Mariel Boatlift” changed the political and social makeup of South Florida forever. A state of emergency was declared in Miami-Dade County. My grandparents were scared, uncertain about what would happen in a city already rife with civil unrest.
Once an agreement was reached between the two countries, Castro allowed familial visits to America. My grandmother was reluctant because she knew the money for the plane tickets would benefit the Castro government, but her desire to see her parents outweighed the former. Her parents came to meet their first great granddaughter who had just been born in August 1989, my sister. When my great grandparents returned to Cuba, they were met by the Special Period of economic crisis. Every aspect of Cuban life was affected, the people were struck with famine and medicine was scarce.
Years later in 1999, I got my first lesson on US-Cuban relations when a young boy named Elian Gonzalez was found floating on an inner tube in the Straits of Florida. My school was canceled because of protests, my cousin’s birthday party called off – my family had learned that anything having to do with Cuba was cause for alarm and extreme caution. What played out just a few miles away from my house was a petty game of politics, and the result is Gonzalez’s continued puppetry for the Castro/Diaz-Canel regime today.
Despite growing up surrounded by Cuban culture, my understanding of Cuban politics was always vague and limited to extreme qualifications. In 2013, I was having dinner with a friend’s family. His parents asked me where my parents stood on the embargo; I realized I didn’t know. Like most things that had to do with Cuba, it wasn’t something my parents discussed at home, careful not to open old wounds. When I asked them, they were triggered, saying they were against it, after so many years of closure, clearly it wasn’t an effective policy. Vengeance is never the answer.
By January 2014, my interest in Cuba had been piqued after taking a Cuban cinema class at Columbia University. My professor idealized Cuba and its policies. Confused, I decided to visit the island, meet my family and conduct research for my senior essay. After just a week, I realized Cuba was not a socialist paradise, nor an apocalyptic nightmare. The truth as always lies with the unspoken people of Cuba, luchando (fighting) and just trying to get by.
Almost a year after my visit, Obama announced he was thawing ties. By then, my family welcomed a decision that months prior they, too, had been skeptical of. It is only by being in Cuba that you can really understand the necessity of exposure and open relations.
Given what my grandparents went through, it may be surprising that Cuban Americans would lend their support to Trump – someone who loudly defies the traditional American values of democracy, rule of law, and freedom of speech that make the US so different from communist Cuba. But according to a 2016 National Election Pool exit poll, Cubans were about twice as likely as non-Cuban Latinos to vote for Trump in Florida, with 54% supporting him.
The 2020 battle for South Florida
Recently, it has been reported that Trump’s polling throughout Miami’s Democratic enclave is outperforming his results from 2016. His $5.9 million spending in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale TV market has vastly surpassed Biden’s. The latter is now trying to make up ground with help from Mike Bloomberg, but Trump’s messaging has already targeted an especially vulnerable and impressionable group: Cuban immigrants with deeply ingrained trauma.
My abuela, a registered Independent, has never liked Trump, voted twice for Obama and once for Hillary Clinton. Since 2016, she has compared his jingoistic rhetoric to Fidel Castro’s. His crude behavior and sheer lack of morals have been nonnegotiable to her – in her words, he brings shame to the White House, a place once known to her as “the light of the world.”
But she recently called me to announce that she was frustrated and not going to vote in the upcoming election because Joe Biden was plotting to reestablish ties with Cuba and would concede too much power to Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel. I knew immediately from the language she used this was likely messaging from Trump’s campaign, likening the entire Democratic Party to Castro’s communists.
I told her that reestablishing ties with Cuba and picking up where Obama left off would actually benefit her. The future of her monthly Western Union remittances to her brother in Cuba have become uncertain due to the economic sanctions Trump has placed on the island. In June, the State Department announced it was adding Fincimex, a Cuban company controlled by the military which processes Western Union remittances, to its Cuba Restricted List.
Just last year, Trump banned all flights to Cuba outside of Havana, causing an extreme decline in tourism. The Trump campaign claims to be punishing the Cuban government and military where it hurts the most, in their pockets. But, after a year, it is clear that the people who are hurting the most are the citizens of Cuba.
Trump and his strategists have expertly pandered to my grandmother’s generation, who are jaded by Castro’s destruction of their homeland. Trump’s campaign has paid millions for TV ads on local and national Spanish stations and has even influenced Cuban millennial talk show hosts to evangelize his platform. The overarching aim has been to equate Democrats with their long-feared enemy: socialism.
But as explained by The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, Cuba’s government is not an accurate example of socialism. The country’s well-defined wealthy class and stringent censorship make it a totalitarian regime.
In reality, Castro and Trump have more in common than they do differences. America’s police brutality and attacks on media most closely resembles Cuba today. When Cuban police killed a 27-year-old Black man, Hansel Hernandez in Guanabacoa, on June 24, activists organized a protest in Havana. The government’s response was a PR campaign with the Twitter hashtag #HeroesDeAzul (Heroes in Blue), an almost carbon copy of America’s #BlueLivesMatter campaign.
Meanwhile, at the Republican National Convention, Trump invited Maximo Alvarez, a Cuban American businessman who arrived via the Pedro Pan Freedom Flights in 1961, two years after the start of Cuba’s 1959 Revolution. Alvarez said the current racial uprisings remind him of his home country in 1959 and compared Democrats to Castro.
Trump is not the only Republican to have opposed Obama’s softening of America’s policies toward Cuba. But we can already see the effect of Trump’s decision to undo them. My cousin, a 29-year-old self-employed entrepreneur, has struggled to make enough for his growing family since tourism has declined under Trump’s harder line. Trump’s Cold War positions hurt people like my cousin, but not the intended targets like the country’s leaders.
The pandemic provides its own reasons for Cuban Americans in hard-hit Florida to oppose Trump. Miami’s working-class community of Hialeah, a 96% Hispanic enclave of more than 233,000 and home to more Cubans and Cuban Americans than anywhere else in the country, had the second highest preponderance of cases in the state in July. Without national leadership, it’s difficult to see a way out.
Trump’s messaging sinks in
Still, Cuban Americans like my abuela appear to be susceptible to Trump’s scare tactics. Perhaps because of her age, her demographic, even though she’s never subscribed, she receives almost daily emails from the Trump campaign. She spends her days watching Spanish television, where she watched Joe Biden say he would continue Obama’s Cuba rapprochement policy. The speech triggered in her a sense of humiliation and defeat – reminding her of the pain she felt when she saw Obama be ridiculed by the Cuban regime during his 2016 visit, casually enjoying a baseball game, she says he was “walked all over” by Castro.
“The day Biden said he would continue Obama’s policy, se me cayó el techo encima,” (It felt like my roof had fallen on top of me) she says.
The neutralization of the supposed “enemy” takes her back to the days of crowds of people yelling in the Plaza Civica (now called Plaza de la Revolucion), “Fidel seguro, al Yankee dale duro!”
If Cuban Americans don’t vote for Biden, it means squandering the health of our local community, as well as putting at risk the well-being of our families on the island. After our phone call, my grandmother realized she had let her deep-rooted trauma cloud her sense of judgment and recommitted to vote for Biden.
I was shocked at first by my abuela’s declaration – her moral imperative had always kept her away from Trump’s extremist rhetoric. I asked her if she understood the weight of that decision, how it could indirectly help elect Trump. She acknowledged that could happen and repeated that there simply was no good candidate to vote for. I reminded her that perhaps it seemed that way, but comparing Biden and Trump is like comparing day and night. She said that having never had the right to vote in Cuba, she could not waste her privilege as an American citizen to vote now and agreed that “no hay otro remedio” (there is no other choice) but Biden.
In this election, she is voting out of obligation. I hope more Cuban Americans can have the same conversations with their skeptical family members and help them realize that this election is not one to leisurely disengage from – that it is our obligation as first-generation Cuban Americans to preserve the democracy our elders fought to bring us to; and the freedom so many still yearn for.