Forty-five years ago today, on Aug. 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned. It had been two years since a group of Cuban exiles broke into the Watergate Hotel. Today, thanks to hundreds of books, movies, podcasts and more, we remember Watergate as a transformative moment in American politics. One part of the Watergate story that isn’t well known, though, is the scandal’s connection to U.S.-Latin American relations and Hispanic Republican politics.
This part of the story is a reminder that even seemingly domestic political scandals always play out in the broader arena of international politics, and that the cost of political participation — the chance for a measure of political power and to see policies they care about enacted — has sometimes led Hispanics to participate in, or tacitly endorse, corruption if it serves their ends. That’s as true today as it was during the Nixon years, and helps explain why some Hispanic Republicans remain loyal partisans even during the Trump era.
That the Watergate burglars were Cuban became an important part of the story. They themselves portrayed the break-in as part of their effort to combat Communism and Castro, who was rumored to be funneling money to the Democratic National Committee for candidates who supported the Cuban Revolution. When the news story broke, Nixon actually thought it had the potential to be a political boon to his campaign.
Incredibly, the diary of his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, reveals Nixon’s thinking that if the press started focusing in on the Cuba connection, it could be a vehicle to fundraise from Cubans in Miami, who were “very much against” his Democratic opponent, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.
This plan proved flawed as investigators increasingly scrutinized the behavior of the president’s reelection committee — the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP) — dashing Nixon’s hopes that the break-in could be camouflaged as an anti-Communist or anti-Castro move. But it showed how Nixon was attuned to Hispanic politics, and how he actively courted Hispanic votes, building up a loyal cadre of Hispanic Republicans that has subsequently helped deliver electoral victories.
To this day, Hispanic Republicans remember Nixon as the first president from either party to recognize them as first-class citizens. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, they say, made many promises during campaign season, but then ignored Hispanics after their elections. Nixon, on the other hand, made promises and followed through.
For example, he supported a Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking Peoples, which sought to marshal federal government programs for the benefit of Hispanic communities. He created the National Economic Development Agency, which helped Hispanics open banks; and appointed Hispanics to several high level positions, including the head of the Small Business Administration (Phillip Sanchez).
Hispanic Republican Cold Warriors — Puerto Ricans opposed to the island’s independence movement, or Mexican Americans opposed to the secularism of the Mexican Revolution, in addition to anti-Castro Cuban exiles — were also drawn to his reputation for hard line anti-Communism, a byproduct of his questioning of Alger Hiss in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and his proposal for the covert attack against Cuba that became the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Because of Nixon’s perceived support for Hispanics and the issues they cared about — chiefly political inclusion, economic uplift and this strand of virulent anti-Communism —Nixon won more than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1972, more than doubling the support any Republican candidate had won previously.
Nixon’s Hispanic inner circle called themselves the “Brown Mafia.” They were his appointees and other government employees close to the White House, who helped him win the support of Hispanics across the country by doling out federal grants and political favors. Because of their ethically questionable tactics, they were called to defend themselves before the famous Senate Watergate Committee.
One Brown Mafia member who testified was Benjamin Fernandez. By the time of Fernandez's hearing in November 1973, much wrongdoing had been uncovered, the Saturday Night Massacre had rocked the country just the month before and the committee turned to investigating shady electoral ploys involving Hispanic constituencies.
Fernandez was there to rebut charges that he had participated in a pay-to-play scheme that embodied the essence of the CRP crookedness. A Florida contractor alleged that Fernandez had promised to make his troubles with the Department of Housing and Urban Development go away in exchange for a donation to Nixon’s reelection campaign. Fernandez denied any such quid pro quo, but his testimony, much of which focused on his efforts to build a national Hispanic Republican movement, showed how intertwined such tactics were with Nixon’s push to secure Hispanic support.
Whether Fernandez was guilty of improprieties or not, it came to light that other members of the Brown Mafia had promised federal grants in return for support for Nixon. If a grant recipient supported Nixon, federal monies kept flowing. If the grantee did not support the president, the well ran dry. As one newspaper put it, Hispanics “who supported the president got the carrot,” while “those who didn’t got the stick.”
Some of the grant recipients were Democrats or left-leaning Chicano activists who Nixon aimed to convert. Others had political favors of one sort or another dangled in front of them — presidential pardons, car dealerships, judicial appointments and other enticements.
The revelation of such dirty dealings did not dent Nixon’s support from the newly burgeoning Hispanic Republican movement. The loyalty that he had built up from his attention to the Hispanic community paid off. Like most Republicans at the time — until the very last days of Nixon’s presidency, when Americans first heard the smoking gun tape — Hispanic Republicans stood by the president even as his involvement in the scandal became increasingly clear.
During his testimony, Fernandez declared that the dedication of Hispanic Republicans to Nixon “has not wavered,” in part because they saw the hearings as a Democratic-led witch hunt.
Nixon’s unscrupulous brand of Hispanic Republican politics had broader political ramifications that reverberated after his resignation, producing disillusionment in the broader Hispanic community. Many feared that hard won political gains might be lost thanks to blowback from the scandals.
Despite this disillusionment, however, Hispanic Republicans have remained loyal to their party over the past 45 years, even as its’ policies and rhetoric have often seemed, on their face, to repel Hispanic voters — unlike Nixon’s overtures to the group. This loyalty, dating back to the bond formed with Nixon, explains why some 30 percent of Hispanics supported Donald Trump in 2016, and the same percentage could vote for him again in 2020.
The efforts of Nixon’s first term continue to pay dividends because he and his Hispanic supporters articulated the underpinnings of a Hispanic Republican political identity. Although it hardly represents the majority of Hispanic voters, then or now, the Hispanic Republican movement has been able to weather attacks by leaders like Trump, largely because its participants see Republicans as better than the alternative.
Trump’s Hispanic supporters credit the president for the low rate of Hispanic unemployment, the benefits of his tax cuts and the salutary effects of his financial deregulations, all of which get at their focus on the economic well-being of their community. Some also continue to view U.S.-Latin American relations through a Cold War lens, and consider the left-leaning policies advocated by some Democrats as being suspiciously like those enacted by hated Latin American governments.
At a gathering of politicos and small business owners this past March hosted by the Latino Coalition, Sen. Ted Cruz drew a straight line from the Cuban Revolution to the current strife in Venezuela to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, today’s domestic embodiment of the creeping threat of socialism.
Such historical conflations demonstrated the stakes of the Trump moment for Cruz and other Latinos. Today’s Republican Party must tread carefully around deeply controversial positions on issues like migrant detention and border fence construction. These subjects didn’t come up at the Latino Coalition conference, however. For Hispanic Republicans, it has always been true that other issues — employment, education, homeownership, military hawkishness — have been as important as immigration and the border. But they’ve had to pronounce this fact more and more as the Republican Party has taken a hard-right turn on these most visible concerns.
Given their focus, it’s not surprising that even today Nixon’s surviving Hispanic Republican supporters work to rehabilitate his reputation by writing fawning accounts of his administration and engage in events at the Richard Nixon Foundation that are exercises in hagiography. Their long-standing loyalty despite Nixon’s behavior helps explain why Hispanic Republicans also remain loyal to Trump. So long as he helps them advance their varied interests, his other baggage and hateful rhetoric can be overlooked.