Cuba, Venezuela Policy Could Prove Key To Winning Florida

Law360 (November 2, 2020, 9:31 PM EST) -- With Florida once again one of the most crucial swing states in 2020, candidates are hoping to tip the state by leveraging its unique demographics through attacks accusing opponents of being soft on communism, socialism and authoritarianism in Cuba and Venezuela.

Experts say Republicans' attempts to link former Vice President Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats to Cuban communism and Venezuelan socialism and Biden's counterattacks sounding alarms over President Donald J. Trump's strongman tendencies reveal both campaigns' expectations that these themes could stir up enough sentiment among the state's Latino voters to be a determinative factor.

The comparisons are particularly stark when it comes to the candidates' approaches on Cuba. Biden has indicated that if he wins, he will return the U.S. to the path the Obama administration forged in its last few years with steps toward normalization and a reopening of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration so far has followed what Miami attorney Pedro Freyre, chair of Akerman's international practice and a member of its Cuba team, described as a "back to the future" hardline approach reminiscent of the height of the Cold War.

"The contrast couldn't be clearer. It's night and day. It's yin and yang," Freyre said.

The legal arena comes into play, too. Lawyers and other experts said Biden is likely to reverse Trump's activation last year of Article III of the Helms-Burton Act, which provided a cause of action to file lawsuits in U.S. courts over alleged trafficking in property confiscated by Cuba's communist regime. Pending cases would be grandfathered in by law, but future claims would not be allowed.

But Trump could also change course on that policy if he wins a second term, experts suggested. The consensus was that the president lifted the suspension of the nearly 25-year-old provision with his re-election campaign in mind, but that motivation will vanish after Election Day.

Also, the wave of suits that was anticipated has been more of a trickle, with many of the roughly 30 pending cases targeting not Cuban interests but U.S. and European corporations, including in the cruise, airline and hospitality industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

"I think that Trump would be focused, without having to win the Cuban-American voters again for an election, more on the economy. And part of that economy is providing U.S. companies the ability to do business in Cuba if that is what makes sense for them from a business perspective," said Aymee D. Valdivia, a member of Holland & Knight's Cuba Action Team, who practiced law in Cuba for several years before coming to Miami.

Sunshine State Strategies

This blur between politics and policy that has marked much of the Trump administration's diplomatic efforts is also evident in the campaign ads that have clogged Floridians' airwaves and mailboxes the last few months, the experts said, noting there is a substantial amount of misinformation in the attacks and they are less about actual policy priorities than stoking fears.

"These are issues that are of great importance in determining who will be the next president of the United States. They are not issues that will be of great importance to whoever is the president of the United States," said David Abraham, a professor of law emeritus at the University of Miami School of Law who also previously taught history at Princeton University.

Florida's propensity for close election results — since 2000's infamous Bush v. Gore showdown, every presidential race except in 2004 has finished within a 3 percentage point margin — has made it crucial for candidates not just to eke out every vote they can but also to deter as many as possible from the opposing column, Abraham said.

"The election in Florida is so close that if you can peel away a few thousand votes from the Democrats by suggesting that Biden … is somehow a stalking horse for [Venezuela's Nicolás] Maduro or Raúl Castro or Che [Guevara] or all of those demonic figures that appear in those television ads, then you've succeeded," Abraham said. "In an election in a state that could be measured by hundreds or a few thousands of votes, every Latin-American person that you can make nervous about Biden is a win."

Familiar Themes

The ads typically suggest Biden is synonymous with progressive U.S. lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and their embrace of a strong social safety net and extrapolate that such policies would lead to the kind of socialist and communist systems that exist under the authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Cuba, Abraham said.

"'If you elect Biden, you'll get Maduro.' That that's been the logic of the ads, and as ridiculous as it seems, it's repeated over and over again, in Spanish in particular and on the radio," he said, noting that in the context of these ads it doesn't matter that Biden has not said anything conciliatory about Maduro or the Castro regime.

"It's disingenuous and obviously without merit, but there is a sense that it resonates with people who were victims of socialist regimes and communist regimes, so I think the [Biden] campaign has had to be responsive to that even if it's sort of frustrating that anybody would buy this junk," added Michael Camilleri, an Obama administration veteran who is now director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank aimed at fostering democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This messaging gains effectiveness from the insularity of the Cuban-American and broader Latin-American communities in Miami. That has been perpetuated by the robust community organization and media infrastructure established by the first wave of Cuban exiles in the early 1960s and reinforced by later waves of arrivals from Venezuela, Colombia and Central America, according to Abraham.

These more recent immigrants tend to bring a similar conservative outlook and aversion to socialist and left-wing figures, but in something of a contradictory twist, many do not share anxieties expressed by some Americans over Trump tendencies for strongman governing despite having lived under authoritarian systems, the experts said.

"Now you have new audiences, like the Venezuelans and the Nicaraguans, and you do this syllogism. Somebody said the word socialism is the same as Marxism, and, of course, it isn't," said Akerman's Freyre. "It's a completely different animal. There's all kinds of socialism. ... There's Denmark and then there's North Korea."

A Complex Community

With 2020's competing crises, the ultimate impact of this campaign messaging based on Cuban communism and Venezuelan socialism remains to be seen.

Such messaging's importance in election results has ebbed and flowed over the years. The Elián González custody battle gave George W. Bush a crucial boost among Miami's Cuban-Americans in 2000, but voters were more focused on the Great Recession in 2008, Abraham noted.

Within the Cuban-American community, a generational divide can now be seen, several sources said, with younger voters tending to be less obsessed with the Castros and more concerned about other issues, such as health care. Cuban Americans also are divided on the proper strategy for U.S.-Cuba policy itself.

"While one group wants a hard policy on Cuba with measures that deprive the government — and, consequently, the Cuban people — of funds and resources, the other side will vote for more openings that provide a source of income to Cubans in the island through unlimited money remittances, travel and people-to-people exchanges," Holland & Knight's Valdivia said.

And while recent U.S. Census Bureau data found that Cubans still make up the largest segment of the state's Hispanic citizen voter age population at nearly 937,000, Florida's Latin-American community is highly diverse, according to an October report from Equis Research, a research and polling group focused on the Latin electorate.

Puerto Ricans, whose experience is rooted in American democracy, rank a not-so-distant second at about 863,000 after arriving in large numbers after recent hurricanes, and other Latin-American immigrants collectively account for more than 40 percent of the state's citizen voter age Hispanics.

Each group brings its own concerns to the electoral equation. For Venezuelan-Americans, while Trump's policy and campaign messaging has struck a hard line against the Maduro regime, the administration has yet to provide Temporary Protected Status that would allow their friends and family fleeing the turmoil there to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

"I'm surprised that that hasn't happened," Camilleri said. "I think it's been to the Biden campaign's advantage."

If the Cuban or Venezuelan diaspora were concentrated in a solidly blue or red state, such as California or Montana, we probably would not see campaign ads focused on these issues, Camilleri noted. But with Florida's unique location, size and tight balance of Democrats and Republicans — and the importance of its 29 electoral votes — these messages to the state's Latino voters might prove critical to deciding the direction of the nation.

"I think in the big picture, it doesn't matter a ton politically. But you know, it happens to matter a lot to a segment of people who live in probably the most critical swing state which is often decided by 1, 2, 3% of the vote," Camilleri said. "These are communities that are politically mobilized, important, care a lot about the issues, vote on them, and are critical within the context of this system that we have."

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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