Do you want to know how Trump achieved his success among Cuban Americans in Florida? I know exactly how he did it: Not by winning them over, but rather by exploiting their deepest fears. I come from a family of Cuban exiles and grew up around dinner tables that discussed the crumbling of Fidel Castro’s regime—among family discussion that plotted the awaited return to an island that was overtaken by communism in the early ‘60s. Like many young Cuban Americans in Florida, we knew the meaning of “Castro,” “socialismo” and “comunismo,” before we even learned how to add or subtract.
Looking back, it seems like we all spent more time seeped in painful nostalgia than the reality among us. Even while living in Florida, my family had dreams of establishing a newspaper company back in Havana, and my grandfather, Carlos Alberto Montaner, who was once a political prisoner under Castro and has built a decades-long career as a journalist and writer, had aspirations of running for office in a democratic Cuba. For years, Cubans in Florida were always one foot in, one foot out, neither fully here nor there, ending every other sentence with an “algun dia.” One day. Always living in anticipation. Yet slowly through the years, that hope started dwindling. My grandfather, who left Havana at 17 years old, is now 79. Like millions of other Cubans, he never returned. He never will.
There are plenty of explanations surrounding Donald Trump’s success with Cuban Americans. Plenty of historical context, data, and trends point to the exact scenario that unfolded in Miami Dade County, including the fact that Cubans have leaned Republicans for decades. Yet the main reason is perhaps the one that is hardest to see: Trump reopened people’s wounds. He tapped into that feeling of betrayal by falsely but very masterfully casting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the return of communism; there is nothing more terrifying than the idea of losing your land—not once, but twice. The votes that were cast for Trump, were ones driven by manipulated emotions rather than by rationale. I see those votes as the product of indoctrination by the type of propaganda those voters have always claimed to reject. But as much as I question these voters’ choices, I understand the pain that drove them to that point.
All eyes are fixed on the fact that Trump won 55 percent of Florida’s Cuban American vote, but I think that misses the larger story in front of us: What about the people who were able to transcend the misinformation and emerge clear-sighted on the other side? The ones who, against all odds, didn’t succumb to Trump’s fear-mongering campaign?
My grandfather was one of those people. Just days before the Election, he shocked my family by announcing that he would publicly endorse Joe Biden through a local Miami TV ad. On air, his words were simple but powerful: “I’ve dedicated my whole life against socialists and communists…and I can say emphatically that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are not Socialists or Communists.” That ad didn’t just cost him friendships. He’s also been insulted and harassed online, treated like an outcast by a Miami community that once called him a hero.
But days after the election, I now see something else in my grandfathers’ words. I see a message that was about so much more than Biden or the 2020 elections. It was his subtle way of passing the baton to a younger generation that is ready to embrace change in this country in a way he never truly did, and perhaps, never truly could: by not being scared of leaning into freedom. This country, although it occupies a reality far from its aspiration, carries the promise of allowing all humans to be equal. That was always the original promise Cubans searched for when they fled the Castro regime, but one that was never possible in Trump’s America. Although most Cuban Americans didn’t see that clearly on November 3rd, others did—and that’s the story that’s worth hanging onto.
Sometimes the best stories emerge when we’re at a loss for words—when there are no winning numbers or statistics to drive clear narratives. On election night, I found myself covering a “Cubans for Biden” event in Miami. It almost felt like I was reliving 2016 at the Javits Center all over again—a victory party crashing in slow motion. When most of the cameras were off and most people went home, 22-year-old Daniela Ferrera was one of the last people standing. In that moment, she told me: “We’re going to keep going at it…” At a losing party, she cast herself as a winner.