Did President Obama’s latest executive actions regarding Cuba policy in October incite hardline exiles to vote for Donald Trump in large enough numbers to help him win Florida? That belief was pushed by some in the immediate days after the election, and is getting more life from a Hillary Clinton supporter who knows the Cuban exile community very well in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death over the weekend.
Ralph Fernandez is a lifelong Democrat who helped raise money for Clinton’s campaign in Tampa this year. He’s also an attorney who defended many who went up against Castro’s government, and he says the exile community did everything possible to make sure that Clinton didn’t win the state.
“I knew that the efforts from Tampa – Kathy Castor, the presidential announcement, the way that it was carried out – was going to create problems for Hillary in the elections, and it did, because the dinosaurs … came together as they had never done to vote for Trump, a president-elect who will do nothing for Cuba, despite what he promised,” Fernandez said on Saturday.
Obama’s rapprochement with the Castro government began in December 2014, when he announced he had reached a deal with Cuba to begin to normalize relations. Since then, embassies have reopened in both countries, the U.S. has loosened trade and travel restrictions, and Obama visited the island there in March. His latest foray took place last month, when he announced that he was removing limits on the import of Cuban cigars and rum. Shortly after that, he ordered U.N. Ambassador Samantha Powers to abstain from a vote condemning the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba. Whether those moves changed opinion among Cuban-Americans in Florida, the fact of the matter is that support for Trump among that demographic shifted from 33 percent in September to 52 percent just before the election, according to a New York Times/Sienna poll.
Although a virulent anti-Castro critic, Fernandez is a Democrat who backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and raised funds for Clinton in 2016. He also used to be an ally of Castor, but their relationship was fractured after Castor returned from Cuba in 2013 and called for an end to the fifty-year plus economic embargo against the communist island.
“I told her this was only the wrong thing to do, but it was just going to piss off these old Cubans in Miami that were out to pasture already and may have found that it was too hot or too inconvenient to go out that day, too difficult to read through the lengthy ballot and so forth, and it would just decrease the numbers, and decrease the interest,” Fernandez says.
While public opinion polls have shown a generational divide on the president’s moves towards Cuba (and general support overall for the policy change), the older generation of the Cuban-American community in Florida are in many cases single-issue voters regarding Cuba, Fernandez says. “They were constantly being confronted by the issue of the consulate and this and that, and so it just upset them so that their numbers were astronomic.” But he believes that many of those Cuban exile voters who supported Trump will be solely disappointed by what they end up getting, and says it should have been just as upsetting that the president-elect was attempting to do business in Cuba as well, as alleged by Newsweek and Bloomberg.
“I told many of my friends, ‘can you believe that you are going to support the guy who was trying to do business in Cuba when I was representing the shoot down of the Brothers to The Rescue, when I spent 1,000 hours on the skyjacking case or when I represented Rene Cruz in the California case with the two other defendants out there, while I was dedicating my life and and thousand of hours pro bono, and I’m nearly a million dollars out of my pocket defending these causes, and we were adamant about anybody violating the Trading with the Enemy Act going to prison, and now this you’re overlooking this?” Fernandez said with exasperation.
He said those same friends didn’t want to hear about that, and instead would shift the conversation about how President Obama had offended them and they were concerned about a Cuban consulate coming to Tampa. “And that’s all you heard in that community,” he says.
Not everyone agrees with Fernandez theory.
A week after the election results, Cuban American communication strategist Giancarlo Sopo’s wrote up an analysis of the Cuban American vote in Florida, and concluded that it was “fiction” to conclude that Obama’s Cuban policy cost Clinton Florida in the election.