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Latin America Report

Calling Colombians: With Florida In Play, Trump And Biden Reach Out To A Latino 'Sleeping Elephant'

Colombian Embassy in the U.S.
U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien (left) with Colombian President Ivan Duque (center) and U.S. International Development Finance Corporation Director Adam Boehler last week at the Casa de Narino presidential palace in Bogota.

Florida's large Colombian community never got much attention from U.S. presidential candidates. Until now.

Colombians are the third largest Latino community in Florida, behind Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Yet you don’t see U.S. presidential candidates making pilgrimages to Kendall to eat Colombian buñuelos the way they trek to Little Havana to drink Cuban coffee.

That lack of attention to Colombians seemed to change a lot last week.

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President Trump’s National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, traveled to Bogotá to meet with Colombian President Iván Duque and discuss Trump’s new multi-billion-dollar financing initiative to promote democracy and economic growth in Latin America—especially in Colombia. But politically, O’Brien’s more important stop was the day before—in West Palm Beach, where he unveiled the initiative to Colombian expats.

“We’re talking now about the power of the Colombian vote,” said Fabio Andrade, a Colombian-American Republican in Weston who heads the business nonprofit Americas Community Center that helped organize O’Brien’s visit to South Florida.

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Andrade supports Trump; in his native Colombia he supports conservative President Duque—who is popular with most Colombian expats. An estimated 150,000 of them are registered to vote in Florida. Andrade helped convince the White House that Trump could win more of that electorate if he helped out Duque—a prospect that matters in a state where just 100,000 votes tipped things for Trump four years ago.

“We have brought attention,” said Andrade, “to the fact that Colombia is in a very vulnerable position in regards to getting infiltrated by the leftist, socialist regimes around Colombia,” like Venezuela’s—which the Trump Administration is trying to help overthrow.

Cesar Zapata
A poster of Joe Biden in a traditional Colombian sombrero that reads: Hey, our man Joe!

Andrade said the increased attention from Trump is helping to rouse Colombians here as a more assertive voting bloc.

“We were the sleeping elephant,” he said. “Now, the elephant is awakening.”

But Democrats say Trump’s attention to Colombians is much less about genuinely helping Colombia and much more about cynically grabbing Florida votes.

In the past I could not get more than 20 Colombians to go to a political event. Now, in less than 48 hours I was able to submit a list of more than a hundred to the White House, ready to go.
Fabio Andrade

“Eighty days before an election, to all of a sudden pretend like you care?” said Florida State Senator Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-American in Miami. “All we have to do is remember how badly Trump actually spoke about President Duque.”

Taddeo was referring to harsh and controversial remarks Trump made in Florida last year about the Colombian president, one of Washington's most important allies in the hemisphere:

“More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before he was President,” Trump said of Duque. “So he has done nothing for us.”

Taddeo believes U.S. Colombia policy matters to Colombian expat voters, but not as much as U.S. domestic policy does – which is why, she said, Colombians register Democrat here more than Republican or independent, even though they take more conservative stands on politics back in Colombia.

“For Trump to do this photo-op kind of situation with Colombia, it’s insulting – because the last [he wants] to do is talk about what’s truly on Colombian-American voters’ minds,” Taddeo said. What most preoccupies them, she said, is “coronavirus, the economy, the problems of small business owners” because so many Colombian expats are small-scale entrepreneurs.


Andrade responds that it's disingenuous to think politicians of any stripe don't try to garner votes as Trump is doing, and that "it's then up to us to make sure they follow through."

At the same time, Latino activists say the Democratic Party itself has a history of taking groups like Colombian-Americans for granted. So one thing Joe Biden’s campaign is doing differently this time is to approach Latino communities more individually.

“What I like to call micro-engaging,” said Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a Colombian-American political strategist and communications consultant in Fort Lauderdale.

Perez-Verdia helped the Democrats devise a new Spanish-language media strategy—one that personalizes the party’s message by employing devices such as different Latino accents, including distinctly Colombian voices.

Perez-Verdia also helped create the campaign support group Colombianos Con Biden, or Colombians With Biden. Last month, it organized a Zoom celebration of Colombia’s independence day. It was also attended by Biden advisers who discussed issues important to Colombian-Americans.

Courtesy Americas Community Center
BACK TO THE AMERICAS? U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien receives a traditional Colombian sombrero vuelteado from Colombian expats, including Fabio Andrade (in mask), at a gathering in West Palm Beach last week.

Those include the sort of Colombia concerns the expats hope Biden will engage if he’s elected—like more investment in that nation’s economy and infrastructure, which China is eager to bring, instead of the U.S.’s narrower obsession with its drug war.

“I think that Colombians realize right now that in order to have a place at the table we cannot only be on the menu, we have to be sitting at the table,” said Perez-Verdia. “I think we’re getting now to where we’ve always wanted to be, but weren’t aggressive enough to get there in the past.”

That particular question—why the Colombians’ large population in Florida has never really translated into the sort of political clout they’ve watched Cubans and even Venezuelans carry—is being asked more earnestly now within the community.

Colombians realize now that in order to have a place at the table we cannot only be on the menu, we have to be sitting AT the table.
Evelyn Perez-Verdia

Some explain that it’s taken more time for Colombians to feel comfortable about projecting themselves as a bloc in the U.S. because the term “Colombian” has for so long carried the stigmas of drug lords and Marxist guerrillas.

“That’s changed over the past decade and it’s giving us more of a voice here,” said Andres Ocampo, a Bogotá native who came here 20 years ago and is the CEO at a Latin American food importing firm in Fort Lauderdale.

Eduardo Gamarra, an expert on South American politics at Florida International University, also pointed out that unlike Cuban and Venezuelan expats—who are politically galvanized largely by their desire for regime change in their home countries—Colombians “have never really had the unifying factor of a Fidel Castro or a Hugo Chávez."

“They’ve spent a lot of time here watching the Cubans,” said Gamarra, “and the question is whether that’s now starting to change their historical apathy about voting in elections here.”

To win Florida, Trump doesn’t have to secure as many Latino voters as Biden does, because Republicans typically have an advantage with so many other Florida voters. Andrade in Weston feels the President, whose pro-business policies he says are especially popular with expats, is doing enough to get the Colombian votes he’ll need. He pointed to enthusiasm for last week’s West Palm Beach event with O’Brien as an indication.

“In the past, I could not get more than 20 Colombians to go to a political event,” said Andrade. “In less than 48 hours I was able to submit a list of a hundred Colombians, ready to go.”

Trump and Biden have less than 10 weeks now to win over Florida’s “awakened elephant.”

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.