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The Cuban revolution explains why younger Cuban Americans supported Trump

The state of things in Cuba makes President Trump’s message and style appealing to younger Cuban Americans

Supporters of President Trump rally in front of Cuban restaurant Versailles in Miami on Tuesday. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP/Getty Images)
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As the country awaits the final results of the presidential election, some are surprised by President Trump’s decisive showing in Miami-Dade County, where his appeals to Cuban Americans appeared to pay off. On the one hand, the result is unsurprising: Cubans have consistently supported Republicans for decades, and the Cuban exiles who emigrated in the years following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 have tended to vote conservative. Yet, more recent migrants were thought to lean more Democratic. The Obama administration dramatically broadened relations with Cuba, something that older, hard-line Cubans who fiercely oppose the Castro government were wary about but younger, more liberal family members were more likely to support.

But turning this perceived wisdom on its head, recent polling of Cuban Americans found not only that Trump still enjoys broad support within the community, but that his support has actually increased among Cuban Americans who arrived in the United States after 1995 — and who were the least likely to vote for him in 2016. Even more shocking, the poll found that 76 percent of Cubans who arrived between 2010 and 2015 — a group with deep, personal ties to Cuba — identify as Republicans. This data was borne out on Tuesday, which saw significant gains for Trump among Cuban Americans when compared to 2016. How can this be?

To understand the allure of Trumpism to younger, recently arrived Cuban Americans, we need to look to the history of the 1959 Cuban Revolution and its continued resonance. Once seen as a leading nation in the struggle against oppression, Cuba since the 1990s has experienced material strife that for many Cubans feels divorced from a larger purpose. As a result, recently arrived Cubans have embraced Trump’s vision, in which personal success, and not one’s willingness to sacrifice on behalf of others, is the true benchmark of inclusion in the national project.

Fidel Castro, who served as Cuba’s leader until he handed control to his brother Raúl in 2006 for health-related reasons, personified Cuba’s revolutionary project. For decades, Fidel Castro’s oratory, and the example of the Cuban Revolution and its self-proclaimed fight against American imperialism, inspired millions of oppressed people throughout the world to direct action.

Castro’s government, acting independently and against the wishes of the Soviet Union, supported decolonization struggles in Latin America and Africa, especially in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. From 1975 until the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba maintained a military force abroad, engaged in the decolonization struggle, that exceeded, relative to the island’s population, the size of American forces in Vietnam at the height of that conflict.

While the United States vilified its communist vision, Castro’s Cuba became, to hundreds of millions, the proverbial “city on a hill” — the face of the possibilities for resistance against colonialism and oppression within the developing world. It is notable that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and became the leader of South Africa, one of his first acts was to invite Castro to come to his country to thank him for everything he had done to support the struggle against apartheid, even while many nations, most notably the United States (especially before 1986), had sought to derail it.

But Castro was also a ruthless politician. In power, he swiftly and systematically restructured every aspect of the Cuban government to bring it under his direct control. He viciously attacked the country’s newspapers, completely dismantling the free press within two years. His government eliminated all democratic governance for nearly two decades and replaced democratically elected officials with loyal functionaries. Throughout his tenure, Castro demanded nothing short of absolute allegiance and fealty from fellow officials and Cuban citizens alike.

As a result, millions of Cubans have fled to the United States since 1959, particularly to Miami. The vast majority have benefited from special immigration rules that granted them a fast track to citizenship. Most of those Cubans who arrived in the 1960s were personally impacted by the revolutionary government’s sweeping nationalizations of private enterprise and were vigorously opposed to the Castro government. They became stalwart anti-communists and aligned with the Republican Party, which they viewed as more able to oppose Castro.

Later waves of migrants continued to identify as strongly Republican, but that support waned in recent years. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received more than 40 percent of the Cuban American vote.

Recent Cuban emigres have little or no personal connection to the era when Cuba was the global face of the struggle against oppression. Rather, they largely came of age after 1989, when the impending collapse of the Soviet Union led the U.S.S.R. to suspend aid to Cuba. On the island, this ushered in a time known as the “Special Period”: a five-year period, characterized by widespread hunger and discontent, that saw the near disintegration of the Cuban economy.

This event brought a swift and inglorious end to Cuba’s reign as the “indispensable nation” in the anti-imperialist struggle, and in many ways the island’s economy has yet to recover. The country from which these more recently arrived Cuban Americans fled is still defined by the national government’s rhetoric of social justice and personal sacrifice, but these Cubans are completely alienated from its purpose. In a country where doctors earn around $50 a month and a pound of pork costs $3 or more, their lives have been defined by the struggle to, as Cubans say, “resolver,” that is, to get by.

These Cuban Americans have witnessed the government’s embrace of tourism as an engine of economic development in the post-Soviet era, and they maintain deep personal and financial ties to the island, visiting frequently and investing in tourism-related businesses, such as restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. By and large, they are frustrated with what they see as the slow pace of economic liberalization on the island, and they believe strongly in the value of entrepreneurship.

This enables younger Cuban Americans to relate to Trump. The false persona he has created as a self-made billionaire represents their vision of the American Dream — a shrewd entrepreneur who controls a vast business empire, self-sufficient and beholden to no one. He offers a perfect rhetorical inversion of the Cuban Revolution’s grand narrative, so completely rejecting the notion that personal sacrifice is a necessary component of citizenship that reportedly he pays only minimal taxes. In addition, his ruthless brand of politics, including demeaning his opponents, attacking the press and demanding unflinching loyalty is all too familiar.

This inversion of the revolutionary narrative, bound up in a brashness and a bravado that they recognize, makes Trump appealing to young Cuban Americans, even though many of his policies adversely affect them and their families in Cuba. It does not matter that, as recently as last week, the Trump administration has sought to actively curtail Cubans’ ability to send money to their own families in Cuba, desperately needed especially now that the tourism industry has ground to a halt. They are untroubled by the fact that the Trump administration is engaged in a heated court battle to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic, even though residents of Hialeah, the center of the Cuban American community, have one of the nation’s highest rates of enrollment in the program.

As the sociologist Guillermo Grenier, who conducted the above-mentioned poll, argues, “[t]he Republican Party has become a source of Cuban American identity.” Having historically benefited substantially from government programs (which, ironically, have largely been enacted by Democrats) that grant them preferential immigration treatment and financial assistance, young Cuban Americans feel they can safely support Trump, because they have faith that he and the Republican Party will shield them from harm. They admire him for espousing their breed of economic self-sufficiency, and they are familiar with his brand of politics.