Notes of a Cuban Son

Illustration by Robert Samec

For about as long as I’ve been alive, South Florida has been something like the national id of the American popular consciousness. In addition to the well-documented anti-communism of the Cuban exile community (to which almost my entire family can trace its lineage), Miami-Dade and its neighboring counties have been the site of many an electoral mishap, the consequences of which range from the tragic to the comic. Most famous among these is, of course, the Bush v. Gore debacle, which reestablished for the new millennium the paradigm of liberal complacency in the face of the GOP’s ruthless political maneuvering. Amusingly enough, Florida was also the state which sunk the presidential ambitions of its own (Cuban-American!) Senator Marco Rubio by swinging for Donald Trump during the 2016 primary season in one of the most consequential acts of political cuckoldry in American history. But Florida is not considered exclusively Republican stomping grounds; lest we forget, Barack Obama won the state twice. Even Miami-Dade, visible (and vocal) as its rightwing Cuban-American population may be, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. 

This brings us, then, to the events of last Tuesday’s election. While Joe Biden secured an ostensible victory, Trump’s overperformance in Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade County prompted a wave of consternation among liberals. As results have trickled in over the past week or so, much of this public consternation has given way to comfort at the idea of Trump vacating the Oval Office. I would love to indulge in this rejoicing, and I would love to celebrate the inroads made in states like Georgia. But, having spent the last few months in a Miami suburb whose population is 80% Hispanic, I can confidently say that what happened here on Election Night was not a fluke, but a fire. On Tuesday, Donald Trump lost the county, but he improved his 2016 performance in Miami-Dade by 23 percentage points. These numbers can, of course, be attributed to a myriad of factors, including an archaic debt system responsible for disenfranchising felons. But the clearest answer, as it almost always does in Miami, lies with the Cubans.

The rare Yale student aside, Miami’s Cuban exile community has never been particularly amenable to Democratic politics. Whether attributable to JFK’s refusal to aid in the Bay of Pigs coup attempt, or Bill Clinton’s choice to return stowaway Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba, or the Republican Party’s increasingly successful attempts to equate any kind of egalitarian rhetoric with Castro’s revolution, the enmity is there, and it has been there for my entire life. Through exposure to a politics magnified and distorted by a local media atmosphere intent on invoking the Castros at every conceivable opportunity, Miami’s Cubans have been completely sold on the idea that government itself is conducive to socialism, and socialism itself is conducive to tyranny. 

This explains, then, why Joe Biden spent most of his time in Florida insisting that he wasn’t a socialist but the last champion of a bygone centrism under constant attack from the “socialist” wing of the Democratic Party. To anyone outside of Miami (or even just outside of Miami’s Cuban-American neighborhoods), this is an absurd, even farcical argument to be having. To those of us who grew up here, it is the political terrain we are most familiar with. It is a terrain for which liberals, despite all their attempts to pivot rightward in order to attract the mythical moderate, are almost wholly unprepared.

The basis for the Cuban exile community’s rightwing politics is two-pronged. First, there’s the all-American conviction that the role of a government in the lives of its citizens should be as limited as possible. Public services, regardless of their efficiency or necessity, look a lot like socialism, if not in practice then in principle. There are historical debates regarding the causal relationship between Cuba’s economic organization and the struggles of its population, particularly following the dissolution of the Soviet Union (the island’s primary trade partner) which prompted an uptick in asylum seekers (my parents among them). But nuanced views of Cuban history aren’t ones anybody would be inclined to espouse within the city limits of Miami Here, every major geopolitical catastrophe will in some way or another be attributed to socialism, and only a socialist would claim otherwise. In some ways, Cuban exiles are the ubermenschen of America’s neoliberal era: so enthralled by their own ability to operate within the market that they believe the market should operate everything. 

Second, the most politically vocal of Miami’s Cuban exiles are hawkish (to put it lightly) regarding intervention in the Republic of Cuba. In Miami, the executors of the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion hold significant political influence, and many residents remain convinced that ever-harsher sanctions will spur regime change on the island. They saw Obama’s decision to lift the embargo against Cuba as a form of sacrilege, and Trump’s reversal of that decision as a recommitment to a noble crusade. The primary victims of that crusade, of course, are the citizens of Cuba and not the government which has presided over them for decades. But such humanitarian concerns never make their way into the political debates happening in places like Miami’s Versailles Restaurant, known for its outspoken Cuban patrons, who often gather around the establishment’s takeout window to disparage anyone even slightly to the left of the Republican Party. Ultimately, that’s what Joe Biden is: ever so slightly to the left of the Republican Party. And yet it’s also what Hillary Clinton was four years ago, and she outperformed Biden in Miami-Dade county by about 10 percentage points. The question, then, is how Donald Trump ended up more popular than he was four years ago in a city where Hillary Clinton is considered as much of a socialist as Joe Biden. 

I am sure that, as I write this, Nate Silver and his comrades are devising a mathematically infallible answer to this very same question. However, I am not Nate Silver, nor do I plan to be him. But I do live in Miami, I did grow up around the people that the Democratic Party has been attempting to metabolize into its political framework for all of its recent history, and I was not at all surprised by what I saw the night of the election. Certainly, the city’s colossally incompetent response to the coronavirus made me hope that its constituents would entirely reject the incumbent President, who proved incapable of dealing with the pandemic. But by the time the results were in, the conclusion felt inevitable: he wouldn’t win the county, but he would come closer than most ever had and than most ever will. This sense of inevitability is not, by any stretch of the imagination, mathematical. It’s simply the result of an adolescence spent in a place whose natural political endpoint was always going to be Donald Trump.

I have been politically conscious for four presidential election cycles now, the first being 2008. While plenty of vitriol was directed at Obama (perhaps an unintended consequence of his attempts to coat centrism in a progressive sheen), there was relatively little excitement around either of his opponents (sorry, Mitt). I know Cuban rightwingers who voted for Obama. While I don’t know any who voted for Clinton, the same principle applied in 2016: there was less enthusiasm for Trump than there was apathy towards Hillary. 2020 is different. Every other home in my neighborhood comes furnished with a “Make America Great Again” flag, sometimes several. An intentionally limited Black Lives Matter protest in my town was met with two subsequent counter-protests whose most coherent ideological statement was uttered by organizer Maria Martinez when she claimed that “Black Lives Matter wants to dismantle the Biblical definition of family.” Certainly, the Cuban-American community has always had a reactionary streak, but my youth was dominated by familial arguments about political economy, not the sanctity of family and the threat posed to it by Black Lives Matter. It is in this area—of anger, of apathy, of cultural revanchism—that I’m convinced Trump has gained the most ground where his predecessors failed, and it isn’t even really his own doing. Frankly, he’s just better at triggering the libs.

High school classmates of mine, many of whom have always considered themselves apolitical, cast their ballots for Donald Trump on Election Day. My acquaintances’ Instagram stories occasionally include infographics about how Hillary was just convicted of pedophilia by the state of New York. Trump did not invent these features of our politics, much as he may have accelerated their tailspin. They are symptoms of a political ecosystem where the only real battles take place in the realm of culture, and where the weapons of choice aren’t policies or ideologies, but narratives and aesthetics. 

This leads us (as most things pertaining to the Cuban-American vote do) back to socialism. I’d be willing to wager that for much of the Cuban-American population, the idea of statist socialism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and to a (far) lesser degree in Cuba, has ceased to exist in the political realm and is now an almost entirely cultural issue. The distinction here is, of course, difficult to parse, but it is an essential one. They will never admit this, but if there is anything the Cuban-American community has in common with many leftists in this country, it is the belief that socialism as traditionally defined will not actually come to America—at least not in their lifetimes. I ask my father every now and then whether he thinks the means of production will ever actually be seized, and every time, he says no. The sincere belief that socialism is right around the corner is rare, and those who espouse it belong largely to a particularly South Floridian species of political opportunist. The anxieties magnified in Miami by Donald Trump and the GOP are not, then, the products of an imagined political eventuality, but of a massive cultural unease regarding anything vaguely to the left of the neoliberal haven into which many Cubans immigrated. The vagueness is essential to the effect here, and the blame for it lies only partially at the feet of the Republican Party.

Whether intentionally or not, the Democratic Party has, for the past five decades or so, practiced an increasingly vaporous variety of national politics. The socially democratic political aims of the New Deal have been replaced by an almost fetishistic desire for a friendlier market. It took a while, but the politics have finally exhausted the polity, and that exhaustion has morphed into cultural strife. The result is currently attempting to remain in the White House by any means necessary. Donald Trump, as an individual, has no real politics; he is the absence of politics, the physical manifestation of the processes by which the project of government is made hollow. But he is angry and he is disruptive and he is the poor man’s idea of what it is like when the market makes you rich. The Cuban-American population will continue to lean right for the foreseeable future, but they are subject to the same apathy-inducing forces as every other American, and they are pushed into different variations of the same cultural grievances that Trump often stumbles into addressing. Make no mistake, they will never admit that the market has disappointed them. In many ways, it hasn’t, and the cultural advantages of migrating to a place where most people share your national origin should not be underplayed. Yet class is not non-existent in Miami’s Cuban exile community, and it never really was.

Much as this may seem to be building towards a claim that Bernie Sanders would have won Florida in a landslide, and much as I would love to make that claim, no serious person would. I suspect Bernie would’ve lost the state badly. But I can’t help but believe that the project upon which Bernie would have embarked had he won the presidency would have shifted something in this city—maybe not with the older Cuban-Americans whose politics seem set in stone, but with those who spend their days pontificating about Hillary Clinton’s pedophilia. The professional pundit class may disagree, but I believe that there is a difference between pinning the label of nefarious socialist onto a collection of person-shaped, focus-grouped policy positions, and pinning it onto the man who made sure you could afford college. Or maybe it’s too late, and this is just the latest mirage in the project of American leftism—a delusion that a politics rooted in the betterment of material conditions can shift even the most intransigent group’s outlook. This has been the political terrain of Miami-Dade for a while now. The difference this year is the national realization that it is the country’s as well.


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