MIAMI — On the 58th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton addressed a group of Cuban American veterans of the failed effort to topple Fidel Castro’s regime and announced a series of crackdowns on Cuba and its allies.
It was part of a call to arms to fight socialism abroad, but it was also a message for domestic consumption — particularly in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state and home to large Cuban American and Central and South American communities.
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With at least a half-million voters who were born in Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia or Nicaragua — and more with ancestral roots in those countries — it’s a constituency that could prove pivotal in November 2020 in a state that’s essential to Trump’s reelection fortunes.
“Together, we can finish what began on those beaches, on those famous days in April, 58 years ago today,” Bolton said to rousing applause from the aging brigade members who backed Trump in 2016 when he narrowly won the state.
The centerpiece of Bolton’s announcement of sanctions was the decision to activate a portion of the 1996 Libertad Act and allow U.S. citizens who had property seized in Cuba after Castro’s 1959 revolution to sue businesses who have profited off the “trafficking” on stolen land. The industries that could be affected include port construction firms, cruise ship companies, hotels, banks, agricultural interests and rum producers.
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In all, Bolton announced seven crackdowns and sanctions targeting the governments in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, which he referred to as the “troika of tyranny.” Bolton nicknamed Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega “the three stooges of socialism.” But he also mentioned former U.S. President Barack Obama, whose Cuba rapprochement policies Trump has been rolling back, more than anyone else.
The Trump administration’s aggressive positioning in the Western Hemisphere was made clear by the national security adviser, who said Wednesday: “We proudly proclaim for all to hear: The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well” — a reference to a policy used in the past to justify interventions in Latin America. Some in the crowd said they want tougher sanctions still and even military involvement in Venezuela, an option Trump refuses to rule out.
“This is for us. This is a very strong sign of friendship,” said Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a former Republican congressman from Miami who helped write and pass the Libertad Act — also known as the Helms-Burton Act — which helped enshrine the Cuban embargo in statute. All administrations had waived a provision of the act allowing U.S. citizens to sue the Cuban government over their seized property until Trump.
The voter rolls don’t break down Hispanic voters by country of origin, but experts and consultants estimate that about a third of Hispanic voters are Cuban American and are clustered in Miami-Dade County, acting as a Republican bulwark that has checked the increasingly Democratic electorate in the area.
But the rise of Maduro’s dictatorial regime in Venezuela and Ortega’s return to power in Nicaragua gave Republicans hope that anti-Castro Cuban Americans would find common cause with voters with roots in those countries under the GOP banner.
Bolton greets Ernesto Fernandez Travieso after speaking during the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association luncheon. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Led by former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, Florida Republicans also increased their outreach to Colombian Americans, who watched their country suffer from a civil war with leftist guerillas years ago and are now witnessing it become destabilized by a massive migration crisis from its neighbor Venezuela.
“The actions by the Trump administration will lead to the further consolidation of the Cuban American base and it will bring along Venezuelan voters, Nicaraguan voters and Colombian voters,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Miami who clashed with Trump but supports the policy against “rogue anti-American countries.”
Curbelo cautioned that any electoral benefit Trump could gain in Florida from the sanctions could be offset by “his anti-immigrant rhetoric and needless confrontations with Mexico and with our Central American allies.”
At the same time, Florida Democrats have fretted that progressives in other states, including Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, have given Trump entrée with these Hispanic voters by not denouncing Maduro’s government. But Democrats have also criticized Trump for not giving temporary protected status to enough Venezuelans fleeing Maduro’s government.
Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, who slammed Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for not denouncing Maduro as a dictator, said she was concerned that Trump’s new policy on the Libertad Act could be counterproductive.
“This change has the potential to hurt the Cuban people more than helping them; helping the Cuban people should be our priority,” she said.
Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor and expert on the state’s voting patterns, said that at least 358,000 voters in the state reported they were born in Cuba, 44,000 reported being born in Venezuela, 33,000 in Nicaragua and 96,000 in Colombia.
Only 24 percent of Hispanics registered to vote in the state are Republicans, and 39 percent are Democrats, but Smith noted that Republican Hispanic turnout was far higher in 2018, when Republicans made a strong push for Hispanic voters and criticized their Democratic opponents for being soft on socialism. For instance, in the 2018 elections, 71 percent of the 150,000 registered Cuban-born Republicans turned out to vote, he said, compared with only 50 percent of Democratic and unaffiliated party affiliation Cuban-born voters who cast ballots in 2018.
“We know that second- and third- and fourth-generation Cuban Americans are not nearly as Republican as their parents and grandparents,” Smith said. “But we don’t know whether their ideological ties to, or concerns about the future of the island will trump the issues that are important to them in Florida: jobs, education, affordable housing, health care.”
One of the Bay of Pigs veterans who attended Bolton’s speech, Frank de Varona, said he and other Cuban Americans have liked what they’ve seen from Trump, which is why they backed him in 2016 and will again in 2020. But he wants to see more, starting with Venezuela.
“If Trump doesn’t get rid of Maduro somehow by 2020, he’s going to lose a lot of support,” said de Varona, who favors U.S.-led airstrikes in Venezuela in combination with ground troops sent by Colombia and Brazil.
In his speech Wednesday, Bolton didn’t address the issue of military involvement. But he referenced the last presidential election and said more is to come from the administration.
“This is just the beginning. As long as the people of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua stand for freedom, the United States will stand with them,” Bolton said. “The remarkable story of Brigade 2506 helped inspire President Trump’s hard-hitting Cuba policy. During the 2016 campaign, he visited you here in Miami, he heard your heroic accounts, he saw your stirring pictures and today he is proud to stand by your side.”
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By Zachary Karabell