A crowd of people gathered at Little Havana’s Ball & Chain nightclub on Friday, sweating under the gaze of a stage that looks like a giant hollowed out pineapple, as drafts of mojito mint freshened the night air. The event was in support of Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for Governor of Florida. But for many speakers and attendees, the event’s location was also important in terms of counter-messaging.
Since winning the Democratic nomination for Governor on August 28, Republican nominee Ron DeSantis has attacked Gillum by calling him a “socialist,” and saying he wants to “turn Florida into Venezuela,” which is undergoing a humanitarian crisis under a socialist government.
“We all know the tried and true tactic in this community. The Republicans are running a campaign of fear,” Democratic State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Cuban-American, told the crowd.
For decades, Democratic (and even some proclaimed Republican) politicians in Miami-Dade County have faced charges that they are closeted socialists or communists. The county’s large voting bloc of conservative Cuban exiles who fled a communist regime has for years made the charges too damaging for most politicians to write-off.
But while the argument doesn’t hold as much sway as it has in the past in large part because younger Cuban-Americans are trending more Democratic, Gillum’s progressive policy points like calling for Medicare for All and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have proved too enticing. Some Spanish-language talk radio shows have called Gillum a “communist,” with President Donald Trump hopping into the fray by referring to Gillum in a tweet as a “failed socialist mayor.”
The Friday event took place in the symbolic heart of Miami’s Cuban-American community.
“There’s been a concerted effort for many many years but we’re seeing it very fiercely right now to paint anything left of center as ‘socialist’ and manipulate the past trauma of people that have fled countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua,” said Patrick Hidalgo, co-founder of Cuban-Americans for Gillum, a grassroots group. “We want to push back on all of that and have a resounding, massive turnout.”
In an interview, Gillum responded to the rhetoric.
“There are people who have lost their lives under socialist regimes. Had their businesses taken away from them. Political opponents to the regime being punished for disagreement,” said Gillum. “Those are in my opinion very charged words, and folks better understand what they talk about when they use them.”
Some attendees ridiculed the talking point that Gillum is a socialist. Gillum’s stance on things like seeking higher income for teachers and expanding Medicaid are just good policy, not symptoms of a dangerous ideology, they suggested.
“There’s a lot of checks on power, and as powerful as a Governor can be, I think all those worries are unfounded and just hype,” said Roger Castano, a Nicaraguan-American from Miami.
“Anybody that has lived in Venezuela or Cuba knows that what he is proposing benefits residents, and is nothing at all like Cuba or Venezuela,” said Carmen Weisz, a Cuban-American from South Dade. “It’s an insult.”