Understanding the Venezuelan Vote in Florida

What does this election say about the politics of our Florida diaspora in Trump’s favorite state?

A diaspora still defining itself.

Photo: Reuters

Miami, that party city, didn’t join the celebrations seen in NYC or Philadelphia when the networks called Joe Biden’s victory. The Democratic candidate won at Miami-Dade countyeven if he lost Floridabut the Eta storm crashed the ball. Venezuelan writer Camilo Pino went out on Saturday night and only found rain everywhere: “There was some celebration downtown, but no great demonstrations.”

The rain was perhaps a metaphor for what happened: the Dems’ advantage in Miami shrank from 29% to 7%. With 1.5 million registered voters and 74.5% turnout, Biden won with 53.3% (617,647 votes), while Trump got 45.9% (532,734 votes)  in Miami-Dade. “The Trump campaign message accusing Biden, and especially Kamala Harris, of being socialists, was heard,” Camilo says. “Even in Miami-Dade, where there’s a solid Democrat tradition, Dems couldn’t catch it on time. There’s also that appeal of Trump as a strongman among many Hispanic men. Florida slipped to the Right, in general, and that also happened in the heavily populated Miami-Dade. What made the difference was the Cuban-American vote, which added 200,000 to Trump. The Cuban vote is the most important, along with the Puerto Rican; about the Venezuelan vote, there’s no data: it amounts to 0.5% of the vote in Florida. It’s noisy, very rhetorical, and reinforced by the Cubans and maybe the Nicaraguans, regarding this story of socialism. But the relevant people here are the Cubans, not us.” 

Hialeah Isn’t Doral

The poet and editor Kelly M. Grandal has a particular perspective on the matter: Kelly was born in Havana and now lives in Miami, but she didn’t come to Florida from Cubashe hails from Caracas, where she lived for several years. She doesn’t have a very intense relationship with either the Cuban or the Venezuelan communities, but she says that although they’re close (for better and worse), they’re not at all the same: “The Cuban influence on Venezuela has its limits, as well as the Cuban-American community influences the Venezuelan-American community. I don’t think the Cubans in Miami made Venezuelans vote for Trump. It’s unfair to blame Florida Cubans for that, and it’s unfair to think the Florida Venezuelans have no politics of their own.” 

Kelly agrees on saying that both communities, today, are predominantly pro-Trump, but disagrees with my perception that the Cubans who arrived in the ‘60s, expropriated and exiled by the triumph of the Revolution, are more Republican than those Cubans who arrived in recent years. “Among Cubans, it’s easier to find more Trump followers in the older generations. But I’ve seen all kinds of things and I’ve had to discard clichés. I’ve met old Cubans who respect the democratic thing and the defense of civil freedoms, and young people totally fanatic about Trump. 

“Many Venezuelan right-wingers define themselves as liberals, ignoring what liberal means in America.”

“There are more differences. The Cuban community, concentrated in Miami, is quite solid and organized, and provides a lot of help to its newcomersas long as you adapt to their terms,” says Kelly, while the Venezuelan is less organized and more dispersed throughout the U.S. Both communities, as all Hispanics in Florida, consume media in Spanish, mostly. “Social media must be the main source of influence amid Venezuelans in Miami, followed by local media and family or community networks. Local politicians have little grasp on them. I also think that the ‘this is a free country’ excuse makes people feel less inhibited to say anything without considering the consequences or wondering if it makes any sense. That community has become a comfort zone for those who aren’t fully integrated into the American society, those who try to preserve their identity no matter what, even if that means staying focused on the world you left.”

The Politics of Void

María Puerta Riera, professor of American government and international politics at Valencia College in Orlando, has re-lived with Trump the family conflicts she had when her father supported Chávez in Venezuela, but this context has helped her to understand the Hispanic vote in the U.S. During the research she has been doing with a Colombian-American colleague, she found that the Hispanic vote in Florida is different from the Hispanic vote in the rest of the country, and that the Venezuelan community in Florida has “an ideological void”. 

“Many Venezuelan right-wingers define themselves as liberals, ignoring what liberal means in America,” says this political scientist. “For American conservatives, getting help from the state is helping the state grow, and that’s socialism. Venezuelans have demanded and enjoyed, until recently, a lot of benefits from the state in our country, such as subsidies. We are not conservatives!” Many reject the Democratic party using this contradictory position.  

The professor says that the problem is that Venezuelans “have been void of ideological representation and are looking for a new strongman, which currently means Trump. They cannot tell the difference between communism and socialism, but we cannot expect that when our political parties didn’t even educate their members on such matters. The ideological definition is important to give you a frame of the things you’re defending.” 

The other apparent contradiction is the support of a Trump administration that refused to give Venezuelans the Temporary Protection Status. But that doesn’t only happen to our people. “Venezuelans with U.S. citizenship don’t care if others stay in a migratory limbo,” Puerta Riera says, “you can see it in the polls. When I lived in Texas, when I was a child and my dad was studying there, the Mexicans didn’t help us because they felt the other Hispanics would take from them what they had struggled so hard to have.” 

Voting from Pain 

Eli Bravo, a well-known journalist in Venezuela, now turned psychotherapist, says that one of the main reasons behind polarization in Venezuelans around Trump “is the pain going across the Venezuelan exile, which reactivated the collective trauma of the revolution. The possibility of seeing that event repeating itself in the U.S. generates a very intense reaction, and those who see the danger of socialism are responding to a fear born from their own experiences. That conversation happens completely in an emotional range and it’s difficult to widen it towards facts or reality. I’ve heard the trope of this election like a fight between good and evil among the people who suffered the most in Venezuela, who are talking from pain. It’s not about politics anymore: they see socialism among Democrats like a threat to their survival, like an existential threat.” 

Living in the U.S. makes you face, whether you want it or not, the issue of race, not only when it comes to defining your stance on issues like Black Lives Matter, but in day-to-day events like filling a form and having to define yourself in terms of “race.”

Eli thinks the ghosts of what these Florida Venezuelans lived in their country have been powered by the Republican campaign. “Here, the word propaganda is accurate. It has been heavy, and happened among Nicaraguans, Cubans and to some extent Colombians, around the trauma of guerrillas and the position of those who supported Álvaro Uribe’s strong hand policies.”

There’s something more. “Among Venezuelans, caudillismo, the need for a strongman, is not dead, even less when people need order. That deep exclusion our society had before Chávez, that Chávez used so well to his favor, is being replicated here again, in this new breach among Us and Them that the titanic figure of Trump is using.” 

The Day After

The involvement of Venezuelans in U.S. politics is a story that is just beginning, and that will be taking part on several levels so far unexplored by academia and ignored by political strategy, at least on the Democratic side. Some collective experiences, such as this election, will be modeling that constituency. 

Living in the U.S. makes you face, whether you want it or not, the issue of race, not only when it comes to defining your stance on issues like Black Lives Matter, but in day-to-day events like filling a form and having to define yourself in terms of “race” or “ethnicity”, an unknown experience in Venezuela. María Puerta Riera says there’s no analysis on this subject, but polls show Venezuelans in Florida tend to define themselves as “White” rather than “Latino”. They want to be seen as part of the majority, where the most privileged are. 

Meanwhile, we need to see if these days have left wounds among us adding to the many others that remain to be healed. “I haven’t experienced the division,” Camilo Pino says. “I’ve been living here for many years and I’m used to working with Republicans, always with total respect. I’ve never felt any pressure about my personal opinions. I’ve always tried to stay away from radicals of both sides, I’m just not interested in having any relation with people like that. One learns to listen, to not try to convince, and I haven’t had a single fight. My biggest shock happened with the MAGAzuelan rhetoric on Twitter, but I’ve tried to understand it. You’ve got to avoid emotional discussions about politics, as long as you can. Once you remove hysteria from relationships, things are easier than they look.”  

To dismantle polarization, Eli Bravo says, you need people who stayed in locked positions open themselves to a different stance, since the more certainties you think you have, the more rigid you’ll be. The center doesn’t sell well, Eli says, and the Democrats have also fallen into radicalism when they simplify those 70 million who voted for Trump into stereotypes. “The next months will be interesting. We’ll see if there’s more people accepting that there’s no proof of fraud, and if the Republicans will stay with Trump or not. If the conflict reaches the Supreme Court, even if it ends up favoring Biden, Trump will have succeeded in sowing doubts.”

Eli is sure that Trump’s discourse was effective, but having noisier hardcore followers doesn’t mean that the political center is over. “There’s a moderate sector that hasn’t spoken with that same volume, and that has been attacked when it has used its voice. I think we’ll see more participation, a true coalition of Latinos with Biden.” 

“For now, Biden’s victory gives us the opportunity to breathe and reorganize, but what comes next won’t be easy,” Camilo adds. “Transition will be slow and hard.”