Daniela Ferrera had stopped at a red light on October 11, 2020, in the Miami neighborhood of Westchester, where a pro-Joe Biden caravan was making its way to Tropical Park. A man wearing an American flag as a cape as well as a red hat, its telltale white letters spelling out a Trumpian battle cry, pointed a gun to her face, and yelled “comunista de mierda.” Like Rivera, he was Latinx. But unlike the 23-year-old Cubanos con Biden founder, he believed the then-Democratic nominee was a communist or socialist—and that she was, too.
In 2021, the specter of socialism continues to incite zealous political debates and violent rifts within communities. But while the “S” word is a popular topic of discussion, there remains general confusion around what it actually means. That’s because the theory has been warped by advocates and critics alike. Some conservative politicians describe socialism as an apocalyptic threat to freedom. Meanwhile, some liberals interpret it as merely a progressive Democratic agenda. According to the standard dictionary definition, socialism involves “various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” More specifically, it calls for a nation’s citizens to control at least some of its means of production, which can encompass varying ideas like infrastructure, energy, and natural resources. This ideology has shaped many countries across the world and throughout history, including dictatorial and democratic governments. But in the U.S., vague understandings of the theory have allowed politicians to assign the “socialism” label to just about any ideology and use it to exploit people’s fears, memories, or ambitions—nowhere more than among Latinxs in Florida.
Across the Sunshine State, Republicans and Democrats have a history and legacy of manipulating Latinx traumas to obtain and maintain political power. Here, words like socialism and phrases like “statehood for Puerto Rico” become political weapons that hinge on the pain and suffering of Latinx refugees, and their descendants, and tear communities apart.
“I believe in programs that help people, and I believe in public schools. That’s not socialism; that’s social welfare,” Ferrera, a Democrat and Cuban émigré, told Refinery29 Somos. “I shouldn’t feel bad, or bullied, or violated for believing in helping my neighbor.”
What the “S” Word Means in Florida
An April 2021 survey by NBC News found that a plurality of respondents perceive President Biden to be a staunch centrist willing to collaborate with Democrats and Republicans on bipartisan policy. Yet in Florida, where Spanish-language messages in public radio and on social media paint the president and Democrats more broadly as socialists, media outlets and audiences alike regard him as a comrade of far-left dictators.
And that has a major impact on public perception: Of the émigrés and their descendants who now live in Florida, many directly fled or are not that far removed from the Latin American authoritarian regimes like those of the Castros in Cuba, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and the term “socialism” triggers painful memories of political violence, intimidation, and loss. The “S” word has created ruptures within families and communities, and more than a half-dozen of the elected officials, academics, and community leaders who spoke with Refinery29 Somos worried about a widening division within communities, as well as the rise of political violence, or the threat of force.
“It’s a word that is associated with traumatic experiences,” said Carlos Curbelo, a NBC News and MSNBC political analyst and former representative for Florida’s 26th congressional district who has pushed back on fellow Republicans for labeling moderate Democrats, like Biden, as socialists. Politicians, ultra-conservative media, and social media-based influencers have exploited these anxieties by calling opponents socialists, communists, and caudillos in a McCarthyian effort to either win or suppress Latinx voters for years. That fear is now being further muddled with the rise of democratic socialism, a political philosophy espoused by some progressives, like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, that favor New Deal-style programs that help improve the lives of the economically disadvantaged within a capitalist society; for his part, Curbelo believes progressives have failed in contrasting that against the dictatorial socialism and communism of some Latin American regimes.
“I shouldn’t feel bad, or bullied, or violated for believing in helping my neighbor.”
The tension of either influencing or failing to consider the perspective of Latinx voters in Florida specifically has been going on for years, but it came to a particularly ugly head in the 2020 election. The Trump campaign ran a Spanish-language advertisement in Florida that falsely claimed that Venezuela’s leaders supported Biden. It was a move ostensibly meant to rattle the state’s largest Venezuelan population, and it was also a lie: Maduro had shared opposition to both presidential candidates prior to the ad’s run. Meanwhile, popular radio stations, television programs, and local YouTubers in South Florida and Central Florida circulated false and, at times, dangerous conspiracy theories that attempted to link Democrats to socialist parties and communist leaders.
“The idea that Democrats are socialists isn’t new, but it’s now become more targeted, personal, and vicious,” said Cindy Polo, a progressive former state representative who lost her seat to a Republican who fashioned himself as being “tough on socialism.” Now, Polo is conducting research on political disinformation campaigns in South Florida, and notes that such tactics are “not theoretical anymore. It’s you going after your neighbor or your kid’s teachers. It’s being called an anarchist, or told you want to turn the U.S. into Venezuela because you disagree on policy.”
The Group That Is “Up for Grabs”
That Republicans targeted Latinx people in Florida isn’t surprising: There are 2.5 million registered Latinx voters in Florida—who register and vote at rates higher than the national average among Latinx voters—and their votes are often a major factor in the battleground state’s 29 electoral votes. (The state also has the third-largest Latinx electorate overall, trailing only California and Texas.) And while Democrats outnumber Republicans among the demographic’s registered voters in Florida, a whopping 35% of the Latinx population is registered with no party affiliation. As such, many politicians and strategists see the bloc as obtainable—and strategize accordingly.
To be clear, the Latinx community in Florida is a broad umbrella that comprises 5 million people; it’s often a catch-all term for those with origins from each of the 21 countries and territories of Latin America and overlaps with groups of various races, ages, and genders. A report by the Pew Research Center found that while those of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent make up most of the Florida Latinx electorate, there are also many eligible voters of Mexican, Colombian, Dominican, and Nicaraguan descent. Even more, Venezuelans, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians are among the fastest-growing eligible voters in Florida—and compared with other Latinx voters across the country, those in Florida are less likely to be proficient in English and more likely to be immigrants and naturalized citizens. Like their places of origin, Latinx people care about a range of voting issues, including the economy, health care, climate change, gun policy, taxes, childcare, and more. Yet strikingly, much of the narrative surrounding Latinx voters centers almost exclusively on immigration, as it did in many of the 2020 Democratic presidential debates.
Treating Latinx voters as a single bloc can invisibalize the diversity in voters’ races, genders, class status, primary languages, places of origin (including the United States itself), and political histories. Yet the flattening of these communities to one homogenous group has empowered politicians and partisan campaigns that use manipulative scare tactics to gain or maintain political power. On the Southeast peninsula, the true combat zone is psychological rather than physical: From émigrés in South Florida to climate refugees in Central Florida, many people are still living with unprocessed traumas that make them vulnerable to political exploitation; others carry the machismo, white supremacy, or bootstrap mentality of their homelands with them and act in that self-interest.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Miami-Dade county by almost 300,000 votes, a margin that shrank to 85,000 for Biden in the 2020 election. In Florida’s 26th District, which includes southwest Miami-Dade County and whose population is predominantly Latinx, a majority of voters backed Trump. Strategizing is not limited to the presidential race, either: Last year, Democratic congresswomen Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, as well as state legislators Polo and José Javier Rodríguez, were ousted by Republican rivals—many of whose campaigns repeatedly called the Democrats “socialists.”
Such labeling doesn’t just impact election results; it also affects how communities treat one another. Last October, a member of a Latinos for Trump caravan in Miami damaged a mobile billboard truck displaying a Pro-Biden message; its driver, a Hatian-American employee of the mobile marketing company who owned the truck, was threatened with a firearm. There were several instances of intimidation during early voting as well: Miami police officer Daniel Ubeda appeared at a polling site in Government Center wearing his uniform, a gun, and a “Trump 2020” mask; while an internal investigation by the Miami Police Department found that he violated policies related to improper procedure and discourtesy, he only received a written reprimand. Meanwhile, at a Coral Gables Branch Library polling site, a man dressed in military fatigue stared down voters in a way that many understood was meant to deter votes for Biden; despite public calls for his arrest, Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak tweeted that the man was unarmed, a claim that has been contested, and didn’t obstruct voting.
“This is what happens when Republicans use the trauma of our families to create fears about candidates that aren’t true,” Ferrera, who launches campaigns, organizes events, and creates spaces for healing, conversation, and political advocacy efforts, said. She believes the work is necessary to combat the pervasive misinformation (false or misleading information that results from unintentional inaccuracy) and disinformation (false information intentionally designed to mislead people) today, as well as the history of political manipulation targeting Latinx people in Florida. Even so, she has received several death threats for her political leanings.
“They are threatened by the Democratic vote because they think they’re going to lose everything,” she said. “Imagine, if that’s what your belief is, then you are going to react like that. It’s not an excuse, but it is reality.”
A History of Mistrust
For early Cuban and Nicaraguan exiles in the Sunshine State, a combination of Republican courting, special immigration rules that granted some refugees legal status, and anti-communism conspiracy theories secured decades-long loyalties with the right and suspicion and cynicism toward Democrats. And in The Hispanic Republican, author Geraldo Cadava argues that the Cold War between the U.S. and parts of Latin America prompted the formation of partisan political identities among Latinx people.
After Fidel Castro’s revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed regime in Cuba, well-established Cuban professionals or executives of U.S. companies were personally impacted by the revolutionary government’s nationalization of private businesses and expropriation of land. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to the U.S.; most of them settled in and around Miami. These staunch anti-communists were attracted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the broader Republican Party’s stance on free enterprise, the fight against the “red scare,” and the shared belief that the U.S. needed to spread democracy across Latin America—even through undemocratic strategies like funding and arming military coups.
As Cubans began reshaping Florida politics, they started gaining national political influence. United States leaders used the grievances of the Cuban diaspora to pursue policies aimed at isolating the island economically and diplomatically. The U.S. government embargoed trade with the Caribbean country, severed diplomatic ties, and began pursuing covert operations to overthrow the Castro regime; in 1966, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which provided Cubans with permanent status and resources to help them acclimate to life in their new country.
But U.S. leaders also targeted the Cuban-American population through deceptive methods, such as in the 1970s, when CIA officer E. Howard Hunt spread an unsubstantiated rumor that Castro was funneling money to the Democratic National Convention to support Democratic candidates who were secretly communists. He went so far as hiring Cuban exiles to break into and wiretap the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Office Building; they were told the surveillance was part of an investigation into the conspiracy. (In reality, the CIA, with support from President Richard Nixon, attempted to spy on the presidential campaign of opponent George McGovern.) The men, who were swindled into believing there was hard evidence of communist sympathizers among Democrats, were imprisoned.
Political lies and distortions reached new heights in the 1980s when Miami Cubans helped flip the state’s electoral votes from blue to red, which ultimately cemented Ronald Reagan as president. Many found an anti-communist strongman in the celebrity commander-in-chief, who once pandered to his base by giving a fiery anti-communism speech after visiting a Little Havana restaurant on Cuban Independence Day in 1983; first referred to the fight against communism as “a battle between good and evil” in Orlando; and proposed legislation to create the government-funded Radio Martí, which sent anti-Castro, pro-U.S. news over the airwaves from Florida to Cuba. But nowhere was Reagan’s crusade against communism, and consequential exploitation of Florida Latinx traumas, more pronounced and violent than in its international policies in Central America, namely Nicaragua.
As the right-wing regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle lost power to the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, and the far-right autocrats of El Salvador and Guatemala faced growing resistance from leftist rebel groups, the Reagan administration’s Cold Warriors devised a propaganda campaign that warned of communist infiltration in the region and portrayed the nationalist governments as “Soviet proxies,” rather than expressions of rebellion against violent, corrupt authoritarian rule. This stirred the refugee community in South Florida, who worried about a neighboring red threat, held rallies, and phoned representatives to support anti-Sandinista encroachment efforts.
But the U.S. government also took a hands-on approach that further threw much of Latin America into disarray. In the mid-1980s, the CIA began to organize, arm, and train a counter-revolutionary army, known as the Contras, to destabilize the new Nicaraguan government. Among the 20,000-membered militia were former members of Somoza’s National Guard as well as Cuban exiles, including poverty-stricken new arrivals of the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Top U.S. officials crafted elaborate conspiracies to fund the operation through weapons sales to Iran and smuggle arms to the right-wing guerrillas across Central America. By the decade’s close, the Contras, which the U.S. called “freedom fighters” and the “moral equal of America’s Founding Fathers,” attacked public schools and clinics, massacred civilians, and mined harbors. More than 30,000 people were killed—all in the name of freedom—in Nicaragua, and another 170,000 people were killed in Guatemala and El Salvador, where the U.S. funneled millions of dollars, weapons, and supplies.
The US-backed civil wars led to a new refugee crisis in South Florida. Due to violence in their home countries, hundreds of thousands of Central American civilians sought sanctuary in the U.S. Unlike their Cuban counterparts, few of the asylum-seekers were eligible for amnesty due to the Immigration Reform and Control Act that limited permanent residence to those who arrived in the country before 1982.
As a result, just a quarter of Nicarguans, and only 2% of Guatemalans and Salvadorans, who applied were granted asylum, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that Congress began to pass legislation that allowed many of these Central American refugees to gain political asylum. While these measures passed with bipartisan support, many Nicarguans in South Florida formed a loyalty to the Republican Party, influenced by the decades of branding Central American militant governments and guerilla groups as communists that needed to be defeated.
My aunt is a Trump supporter. She will die a Republican. One of the things that Democrats don’t understand is we romanticize the parties that give us the things we ask for.
“My grandmother might vote for a Democrat, but she says she’ll always be registered as a Republican,” Yareliz Mendez-Zamora, a Nicaraguan-American community organizer who is based in South Florida, said. “My aunt is a Trump supporter. She will die a Republican. One of the things that Democrats don’t understand is we romanticize the parties that give us the things we ask for.” She points to the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act as a reason why many Nicarguans in South Florida formed a loyalty to the Republican Party (crucially, the bill was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat).
Modern-day Political Manipulation in Latinx Florida
Republicans characterizing Democrats as communists or socialists returned in full force during the 2008 elections with an advertisement from Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain that ran in South Florida in both English and Spanish and equated then-Senator Barack Obama with far-left movements. At a campaign rally in Little Havana, McCain also referred to Obama as a would-be “redistributionist-in-chief” who would “spread the wealth,” language that tapped into the wounds of exiles who lost jobs and property due to leftist dictatorships. Front yards were dotted with campaign signs that warned an Obama presidency would be the first step to communism in the U.S.
Even so, the Democrat took 57% of the state’s Latinx vote and became the first northern Democrat to win Florida in a presidential election in more than six decades. As President Obama swiftly worked to ease travel bans and lift trade embargos on Cuba, local Republicans turned their attention to Venezuelans, whose presence and grievances were notable in South Florida cities like Doral, nicknamed Doralzuela. At restaurants, émigrés discussed economic collapse and corrupt governments back home. Sometimes they were joined by local Cuban-American Republican politicians like Senator Marco Rubio and Representatives Mario Díaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Lincoln Díaz-Balart. Some Democrats saw these efforts as strategic political moves aimed at attracting recent arrivals from South and Central American leftist countries toward the Republican cause.
The Trump campaign took the strategy of weaponizing terms like “socialism” and “communism” to new heights during the 2020 election. Throughout his crusade for re-election, Trump centered his Latinx outreach on painting Democrats, and especially Biden and now-Vice President Kamala Harris, as socialists who would lead the country toward a leftist extreme. From advertisements to speeches and campaign stunts, he effectively othered the Latinx population through xenophobic efforts to reinforce that their roots were elsewhere, even if a growing percentage of the Latinx electorate was born in the U.S. He spoke to the ways Florida’s Latinx electorate may have been harmed by socialist regimes, and drew parallels to Democratic promises such as free education and government-run health care as evidence that a vote for the left would transform the country into Venezuela, Cuba, or Nicaragua.
All told, Trump and his allies spent more than $103.4 million on television ads in Florida, more than any other state. A majority of the advertisements were pushed in South and Central Florida, the two regions on the peninsula with the largest population of Latinx voters. Among them were “Salga a Votar,” a Spanish-language ad that referred to Biden as the “candidate of Chavismo,” a reference to the brand of socialism associated with Hugo Chávez, who even after his death is treated as something of a bogeyman; and “Progresista,” which took a Biden speech out of context and linked the Democrat’s promise of progressivism to that of former Latin American leaders like Chávez, Castro, and 2018 Colombian presidential candidate and socialist Gustavo Petro.
According to political marketer César Martínez-Gomariz, calling a candidate a communist or a socialist “is an easy way of doing campaigns. It doesn’t matter if it’s not true.” The Trump campaign understood that “throwing mud” is faster, cheaper, and potent, Martínez-Gomariz, who has worked on several Republican presidential campaigns before Trump, noted. “In this time of social media, an era of the Kardashians, when likes are more important than profound messages and policies, this type of framing is really effective for people who don’t do in-depth research on candidates. And everything Trump did was about framing and labeling: Little Marco, Sleepy Joe, Low-Energy Jeb.”
The Disinformation Machine
Trump’s anti-socialismo scare tactics weren’t limited to advertisements. During an October 2020 campaign stop in Sanford, Florida, Trump warned that Biden would hand control to socialists and Marxists who would “kill your jobs, dismantle your police departments, dissolve your borders … confiscate your guns … destroy your suburbs and drive God from the public square,” insisting “that’s what’s going to happen.” That same month, his son, Donald Trump Jr., and UFC star Jorge Masvidal embarked on a “Fighters Against Socialism” campaign bus, which had stops in the Latinx-heavy cities of Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. Meanwhile, Latinx people across the state were inundated by a widespread Spanish-language disinformation campaign. Conspiracy theories clogged their Facebook feeds, radio airwaves, and even chats on WhatsApp, a popular app used by many people across Latin America, and by many Latinx-Americans to talk to their families both in the U.S. and abroad.
Kill your jobs, dismantle your police departments, dissolve your borders … confiscate your guns … destroy your suburbs and drive God from the public square.
“Empirically, when we were focusing on election period and monitoring for the election, most of what we saw in the Spanish-language or targeting Spanish speakers was in Florida, specifically South Florida,” Daniel Acosta-Ramos, a former investigative researcher with the fact-checking nonprofit First Draft, said. “That was basically the epicenter of the misinformation epidemic.” This tactic worked in part because mainstream media has a problem of not adequately targeting the cohort of Latinx residents who primarily speak Spanish. The Miami Herald has a Spanish-language sister paper that requires a subscription, and a majority of the mainstream reporting is presented in English; as a result, many people rely on social media influencers and niche blogs to translate and aggregate the news.
According to Acosta-Ramos, Cuban-American radio personalities in South Florida, social media influencers in Venezuela and Colombia, and the Trump campaign were the primary sources for misinformation and disinformation, from which three major themes emerged: stoking fears of socialism; tensions between Latinx and Black communities (which itself tends to erase the lived reality of Black Latinx people); and a distrust of mail-in voting. In August 2020, Miami-based Radio Caracol paid programming from a local businesssman who went on an anti-Black and anti-Semitic rant that was 16 minutes long. Following the January 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, a host on the same radio station asserted unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, while another falsely blamed the anti-fascist group known as Antifa for the attack. Colombia’s Infowars-style Web series Informativo G24 spread similar messages, as did people on Facebook and in WhatsApp groups who were specifically targeting Latinx people.
“Misinformation exploits the trust issues that are already stressing our communities and makes it worse,” said Acosta-Ramos, adding that it often takes longer for moderators of English-language websites and apps to remove these types of videos, memes, and messages because they often lack or have yet to invest in the appropriate resources for their Spanish-speaking user base. “Because Florida has such an interesting Latino demographic that’s different from Texas or California—there are huge populations of people from all around Latin America—it’s seen as an electorate that’s up for grabs. And that makes it really appealing for disinformation agents that have political or financial goals. This is a big business.”
Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic consultant, believes the massive misinformation and disinformation campaigns and Trump’s strategy of fear-mongering were compounded by a moment of national upheaval related both to the Covid-19 pandemic and mass protests against anti-Black police violence. As Republicans warned that Democrats were socialists who were going to shut down their businesses, the pandemic forced hundreds of thousands of small businesses to close their doors. The fact that it happened under their leadership is insignificant: Republicans claimed it was evidence, or at least exposure, of what could lie ahead under a Biden presidency.
“So much of the U.S. Latino story rests with the start of a small business, whether a restaurant, a construction company, or a corner store. And the ones who bore the brunt of the economic impact of the pandemic have been small businesses,” Ulvert said. “When businesses are closing or being rioted, and the message is Democrats are forcing this and causing this, and there’s this disinformation campaign tying this together in an emotional way, it’s lethal. They used it against us, and they didn’t just leave it there. They tied all of this to the chaos of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, and the election came and all this came to life.”
Local Scare Tactics Take Root
Trump wasn’t the only politician centering their campaign strategies on the traumas of Latinx political exiles in Florida. When former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ran for Congress last year, the Cuban-American Republican repeatedly compared Democrats to far-left government leaders in Latin America. In a January 2020 tweet, he welcomed Trump to Miami by thanking him for all he’s done “to fight socialism” and said he, too, was running to stand up against “the radical left who are determined to turn the U.S. into Venezuela.” Gimenez later unseated Democratic incumbent Rep. Mucarsel-Powell, and attributed his win to his language around socialism and communism, saying “that particular message resonated with” Latinx voters. Like him, Republican Tom Fabricio ejected Polo, the Democrat who represented northwestern Miami-Dade and southwestern Broward Counties from 2018 to 2020, by attacking her party and positioning himself as a “soldier” against socialist forces.
According to Polo, it doesn’t matter that the reach of a state legislator is smaller than many people realize. “These are state legislators who don’t have a hand in international politics. In Tallahassee, they can’t do anything about what happens in Cuba, Venezuela, or Nicaragua,” she said. “They can fight unemployment and fight for education here in Florida, but instead this is the branding they care about. It’s immoral, but it’s a winning strategy.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio is also confident in the strategy. In a June interview with right-wing platform Breitbart News, the Republican said that Latinxs will become “permanent” members of his party if his colleagues take a page from Trump’s playbook and start using anti-socialist messaging. And in Florida, they are. In April, the Florida House introduced a non-binding resolution that condemns democratic socialism, an act some Democrats called “political theater.” Meanwhile, Republican Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Maria Elvira Salazar both spread false information about the election results that emboldened a still-active pro-Trump Latinx base in South Florida.
“This brings up a lot for me. It is at the core of my anger, my disillusionment,” Polo said. “I see really good people being fed really nasty stuff that they genuinely believe, and they are just doing the best they can to prevent what happened to them once to happen to them again.”
The Democratic Exploitation of Colonized Climate Refugees
Fighting back against the “socialist” label can also cause strife among Democrats and their would-be electorate. During the 2020 campaign, Biden also attempted to tap into the fears and anxieties of political exiles when he called his opponent a caudillo like Castro, Chávez, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. The Biden campaign also released a series of ads targeting Latinx voters, including June 2020’s Cacerolazo and Son Muy Similares, in which a Venezuelan woman who lives in Kissimmee remembers life in her home country and compares Trump’s authoritarianism and violations of freedom of speech with that of Maduro. “What is happening in the United States isn’t the same as what is happening in Venezuela, but it is very similar,” she says in Spanish.
This strategy was less effective for Democrats than it was for Republicans. In a report released by Equis Research, co-founder Carlos Odio suggests that Latinx Trump supporters aren’t necessarily opposed to authoritarian leadership but rather a specific flavor of left-leaning dictatorial rule. “The ads run by Trump and his allies are using ‘socialism’ to prime concerns that are more about economics (e.g. taxes) and culture/race (Goya and ‘cancel culture,’ Black Lives Matter) than about authoritarianism,” he wrote, referencing in particular the outcry that occured when Goya CEO Robert Unanue asserted that Latinxs across the nation supported the same president whose term has been marked by xenophobia, ICE raids, and harsh anti-immigration policies. Odio continued: “That Trump himself acts as a caudillo isn’t incidental, our focus groups suggest, but that it’s part of the package: the same strongman appeal that bolstered [Francisco] Franco, Pinochet or, even, Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe.”
However, Democrats found more success playing into the traumas held by Puerto Ricans, of whom more than one million call Florida home. In Central Florida, the Biden campaign released a sequence of television, radio, and Internet ads that tugged at the heartstrings of people who had been displaced due to Hurricanes Irma and María, most notably with “President Trump Failed Puerto Rico,” which first aired on September 20, 2019, the two-year anniversary of when Hurricane María made landfall on the archipelago. But these ads may have also triggered feelings of anxiety and post-traumatic stress among a community still reeling from the loss of lives, jobs, homes, and possessions, as well as the Trump administration’s utter abandonment of its own citizens. (A National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities study investigating the mental health impact of the hurricane found that PTSD is highest among climate refugees in Central Florida, where many of the ads aired.) Other 2020 ads, such as “Arroz” and “Billones de Promesas” slammed Trump and Republicans alike for “Hispandering,” and making empty promises to a community of valuable voters with no intention of making good on those claims. The Biden campaign also capitalized on a specifically Puerto Rican point of tension: islanders’ inability to vote in the presidential election. In one campaign advertisement, “Usa Tu Voto,” which was broadcast in Florida and Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans on the archipelago urge diasporic boricuas living in Florida to vote with them in mind.
The Puerto Rican population in Florida is majority left-leaning, and tend to agree that both Trump and local politicians on the archipelago failed the territory. November 2020 exit polls show that 69% of Puerto Ricans in the state ultimately cast their ballot for Biden. Yet many of those same voters took umbrage with the single-issue messaging with which they were targeted. While they agreed with the Biden campaign about Trump’s negligence, the magnitude of advertisements and campaign speeches that centered on their upheaval felt less like emotional storytelling and more like storytelling aimed at manipulating their emotions.
“As a communications professional, I understand how we have to tell stories in ways that are emotional and impactful in order to accomplish our goal, but there’s a fine line,” said progressive strategist Adriana Rivera.
In Central Florida, local politicians have also taken notice of the decades-long tension over Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth, and whether it should become a state or an independent country. Whether as a political ploy or a well-meaning liberal fantasy, Florida Democrats often approach Puerto Rican constituents, who tend to favor statehood, with messaging about the archipelago joining the union. During the 2018 Puerto Rican Summit in Orlando, then-Senator Bill Nelson told an audience that he believed “statehood is the answer” for Puerto Rico. Two months later, Representative Stephanie Murphy introduced a Puerto Rico statehood bill by saying the archipelago has “earned its star on the American flag,” a move echoed by Representative Darren Soto, who authored the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act of 2021.
Some Florida boricuas believe that Democrats are exploiting Puerto Ricans’ emotions with political stunts that will never materialize into another star on the U.S. flag. Beyond the lengthy process of admitting new states into the union, Republicans fear Puerto Rican statehood would expand power for Democrats. Others believe that the federal government, as a whole, would be reluctant to take in a territory with as much economic turbulence as the archipelago—even if such a crisis was largely created, or otherwise exacerbated, by the U.S.
Whatever the reason, the messaging can smack of colonialism to skeptical Puerto Ricans. “The way the left frames Puerto Rican issues can be so paternalistic. From statehood to what happened after María, it’s like, ‘Pobrecitos, let me take care of you’ kind of thing,” said communications expert Rivera. “There has been a concerted, conscious effort since the Americans invaded through Guánica in 1898 to conquer our minds and hearts through a lot of these same tactics: infantilizing us and being very patriarchal as the dad coming in. I mean, that’s colonization in a nutshell, and this is how it continues to manifest itself in modern times.”
The Psychology of Political Manipulation
While not every Latinx voter in Florida is operating out of a trauma-based system, the myriad lived experiences of Latinx people who migrate to the state create a perfect storm for uncertainty and fear. It’s an environment compounded by the fact that arguably few politicians on either side of the aisle have approached the traumas of Latinx people with care or invested resources in their healing; instead, most campaigns opt for triggering their pain.
According to clinical psychologist and author Bryant Welch, PhD, trauma, like being separated from loved ones through forced migration or watching your property destroyed by a natural disaster or plundered by the state, creates ruptures in a person’s neurotransmitter connections that can lower one’s self-esteem and self-trust, making it difficult to process information and making them vulnerable to clever manipulation. “The more the mind has been battered and less able to function in that way, the more susceptible we are to a gaslighter coming in and saying, ‘Here’s reality. Now believe it,’” Welch said. In Latinx exile communities, trauma—and the depression, anxiety, or PTSD that may accompany it, is often compounded by stigma surrounding mental health care, as well as an umbrella culture that warns families not to air their dirty laundry.
In bipartisan U.S. politics, political gaslighters similarly exploit the minds of their constituents by imposing a reality favorable to their campaign or party without concern to the long-term psychological impact their behavior has on the people they are influencing. When far-right politicians and talking heads point to the democratic socialism espoused by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez as evidence that Democrats want to transform the country into Maduro’s Venezuela—regardless of the stark differences between these politicians and systems of government—they are exploiting migrants’ unfamiliarity and confusion by introducing something that is familiar. It’s shock therapy meant to weaken people’s understanding of an already (and often intentionally) opaque political system.
Trump may have branded himself as the tough-on-socialism Republican, but his actions rarely matched his rhetoric. Even so, the support he enjoyed from Cuban- and Venezuelan-Americans in Florida rarely wavered over the course of his campaigns and presidency. In State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, Welch argues that once a people become dependent on a political gaslighter and subscribe to their irrational beliefs, they are unlikely to reconsider those beliefs, no matter the consequences or any evidence to the contrary.
So while Trump rolled back parts of the Obama administration’s Cuba policies and tightened restrictions with the Caribbean country, his hotel company had previously explored illegal business opportunities on the island. The former president also aligned himself with Venezuelan exiles by presenting as a steadfast opponent of Maduro, yet his administration failed to grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans and instead deported hundreds of asylum-seekers from the country. Even more, after regarding opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s “legitimate president,” Trump called the leader “weak” and later said he would meet with Maduro, who he described as “strong.” Despite these incongruences, 56% of Cubans and 50% of Venezuelans in the state voted for Trump in 2020, NBC News exit polls found.
In Anxious Politics, political psychologists Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian argue that many people are motivated to act in ways that avoid danger, seek protection, or create a safe environment, regardless of whether the threats they perceive are real or imaginary. For some, this encompasses seeking information, and avoiding information, that may serve to lessen anxiety. However, for others, it may consist of thwarting the threat through force and violence. It is an impulse to fight before you need to take flight.
“When someone comes and says your perspective is not correct, it’s threatening,” Welch said. “It’s not a matter of right versus left or even right and wrong, it’s someone’s mind experiencing a threat to their reality and a perceived threat to their wellbeing.”
A Community’s Fight to Heal
Yet just as political operatives have tried to sow division and fear across Florida, community groups are trying to create spaces for dialogue, healing, and education. In South Florida, Mendez-Zamora starts with her own Nicaraguan-American community. “You need to organize outside and inside of your house,” said the 27-year-old, who is a TPS Coordinator at the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). “It’s about talking with your family, listening to their stories, recognizing that this is a privilege that not everyone has, and then providing them with political education that feels real and authentic to you.”
By being open, nonjudgmental, and patient with her family, Mendez-Zamora said she has engaged her mother, grandmother, and uncle in candid conversations about fighting in the Sandinista Revolution; losing appendages and loved ones; and trekking through McAllen, Texas, in hopes of obtaining asylum in the U.S. It was in these conversations that they vocalized, often for the first time, their complex feelings over the war as well as how their trauma has become fodder for U.S. politicians. In return, Mendez-Zamora has taught her family about the branches of government and how laws are made, and breaks down candidate platforms for them.
“People like my mom and grandmother, when they hear these words, they can work through it,” Mendez-Zamora said of the way politicians use words like “socialists” and “communists” as blanket fear tactics, and how holding space for her family’s concerns have made such campaigns less effective. “They knew Biden wasn’t a socialist. But then I think of people like my aunt, who has never really sat down to talk about her trauma or share her story, and she was spreading disinformation about Biden being a socialist.”
For Liz Rebecca Alarcón, the founder and executive director of Latinx media nonprofit Pulso, educating readers on disinformation campaigns through digital storytelling has been a key part of the outlet’s strategy to build political power in the community. Throughout the election and pandemic, her team has focused on debunking viral misinformation and disinformation on Spanish-language social media networks, radio shows, and messaging apps; their work has tackled myths centering the vaccine, Black Lives Matter, and socialism, and Alarcón hopes the effort safeguards her community from further manipulative efforts. She and her team at Pulso provide public education to its more than 148,000 followers based on facts and explained with empathy and kindness; impassioned rants on social media are understandable, she said, but they risk losing audiences.
“The predominant message I see here in South Florida is fear, the fear that nothing is going to change back home [in Venezuela] and that we are on a path of becoming Venezuela here, and I hear that from the Republican side of the aisle and from the Democrat side trying to defend themselves,” the Doral-based social entrepreneur said. “It’s not a solutions-based message; it’s a trauma-based instigation of our feelings as a means of control.”
Compassion is central to the spaces Ferrera, the activist behind Cubanos Con Biden, creates as well. While she calls the moment a Trump supporter held a gun to her head as one of the scariest of her life, she also says she intimately understands the fear that would prompt people in her community to intimidate each other. In July 2001, a three-year-old Ferrera traveled by boat with her family from Cuba’s Jibacoa Beach to Florida’s Marathon Key. It was a journey that was decades in the making: In the 1960s, her capitalist-minded uncle was a political prisoner at a government-run concentration camp in Camagüey; later, Ferrera’s dad was regularly jailed for running several small businesses. Now, she co-creates spaces like Cubanos Con Biden, Cubans for Black Lives, and Cubanos Pa’lante, all of which center on healing, camaraderie, conversation, and advocacy.
I’m not going to tell you you’re crazy for saying these things, but I will tell you why your fears are unfounded.
“I believe this needs to be a Cuban-to-Cuban conversation about how we have been manipulated historically, that we need to be the one to lead that charge,” Ferrera said. “I also feel as someone who was born on the island, who understands this pain and fear, and who was formerly a Republican, I can help bridge this gap. I’m not going to tell you you’re crazy for saying these things, but I will tell you why your fears are unfounded.”
Sometimes, these conversations take place during group meet-ups, where Ferrera says an inclusive community across the political aisle coalesce to fight for a better future for Miami. Other times, they transpire when Ferrera and her team monitor Spanish-language radio shows and phone in to refute disinformation. Currently, she is organizing with Retire Rubio, a movement to unseat the Florida senator whose rise she attributes to a willful exploitation of fellow Latinx peoples’ fears—and which she calls “disgusting, deplorable, heart-aching, and not fair.”
“I know what it’s like to see people vote out of spite, anger, and fear that politicians have created around candidates,” Ferrera said. “But that’s why I stay here: because I believe in the potential of my community. I feel a sense of duty to stay, to see the shift on the ground, and to fight back.”
Reporting for this story was made possible through a grant from Press On, a Southern media collective that catalyzes change and advances justice through the practice of movement journalism.
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