In one of the most controversial moments of one of America’s most controversial presidencies, Donald Trump this month sent National Guard troops to Washington's D.C.'s Lafayette Square, near the White House. Pepper spray was fired to disperse what videos show were largely peaceful protesters demonstrating against police brutality and racism.
Trump says he supports the protesters’ cause. But his unusual military response has divided Americans – including Latin American expats here in South Florida.
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“What I saw in Lafayette Square was another instance where Donald Trump has reminded me of Hugo Chávez,” says Maurizio Passariello, a Venezuelan expat and a communications consultant in Miami, referring to the late founder of Venezuela’s authoritarian socialist revolution.
Chávez – and now Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro – are notorious for military repression of anti-regime protesters, and Passariello knows exiles who were among them.
“To see Donald Trump use the military to clear out a peaceful demonstration using tear gas, certainly set off alarm bells,” says Passariello. “I mean, I know a lot of people in the Venezuelan community who referred to it as almost a PTSD episode.”
Passariello and immigrants like him believe Latin American expats should feel some measure of post-traumatic stress watching Trump right now. They fear Trump resembles the caudillos, or strongmen, so many came here to escape.
But the reality is that a growing number of Latin American expat voters, especially in South Florida, now support Trump.
Many took part in a pro-Trump rally on Sunday in Miami Lakes, holding signs in Spanish that read, “No to Socialism!” They echoed Trump's assertion that the protesters he's targeted for military action are violent rioters and looters.
“Trump is the president who has most supported the freedom of Venezuela and Venezuelan people,” says Lourdes Ubieta, a Venezuelan exile who hosts a radio talk show on Spanish-language WURN in Miami.
Ubieta is married to Alejandro Rebolledo, a Venezuelan Supreme Court justice who was forced into exile three years ago for defying the regime. Venezuelans like Ubieta are sometimes called “Venetrumpistas” or “MAGAzuelans.” But she says they’ll support Trump in November for one key reason: his high-profile efforts to help overthrow Maduro’s regime – from tough economic sanctions to recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
“Venezuela is one of Trump’s main subjects on foreign policy, and we are grateful.”
Trump's Venezuelan critics note he's so far opposed granting their migrant community Temporary Protected Status (TPS). But Venezuelan exiles like prominent political opposition activist Pablo Medina say other factors, like Trump’s opposition to abortion rights, also appeal to many Latin American expats.
In the end, Medina agrees that Trump’s “embrace of the cause to intervene and act against” leftist regimes in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua – “and the expectation that he will take even stronger action in a second term” – is what has enlarged his Latino backing in Florida.
Asked if they’re perhaps overlooking what his critics call Trump’s own authoritarian, anti-democratic actions simply because his Venezuela policy aligns with theirs, Ubieta and Medina said flatly they don’t consider Trump an authoritarian figure. Or they at least consider his behavior in that regard benign compared to the genuine caudillo tragedies they’ve seen in Latin America.
“Yes, sometimes Trump’s speech is so aggressive that it reminds us of Chávez,” says Ubieta. “But what happens in Venezuela is very much different. I mean, the regime incarcerates people who are against them, and organized crime controls Venezuela.”
Latin America experts like Erich De la Fuente say that relativistic outlook is common among Latin American immigrants.
“They don’t believe that the United States would ever become militarized,” says De la Fuente, a Cuban exile and international political analyst in Miami who studies threats to democracy in Latin America.
De la Fuente notes that one assumption many Latin American expats share is that the dictatorial military abuses they’ve seen there could not happen here.
“The concept of the United States for people that fled here is that, 'Oh my God, the institutions are so strong,'” he says, “that at the end of the day I don’t think they truly believe Trump and the military would turn on the people.”
De la Fuente also feels it’s an exaggeration to compare Trump to Latin American tyrants like Chávez or the late Fidel Castro in Cuba. Other Cuban-Americans say drawing those parallels is an insult, not just to Trump but to their exile community.
“As the daughter of a Cuban political prisoner I find the comparison to be outrageous,” says Mercedes Schlapp, a Miami native and a senior adviser to Trump’s re-election campaign.
“You can’t compare the President’s refusal to tolerate violent protesters in the U.S. with what happens with the Cuban regime, where human rights groups like the Damas de Blanco [Ladies in White] are imprisoned or worse for peacefully protesting.”
Castro jailed Schlapp’s father for six years in the 1960s, and she says many Cuban voters here are sticking with Trump due to his get-tough-on-Cuba policies.
But Schlapp also argues that while Latin American expats are wary of strongmen, they’re just as fearful of the violent, lawless chaos many have escaped, too.
“Obviously, as the President has said, there is a need for police reform," says Schlapp. "But in the latest ABC poll, about 57 percent of Hispanics oppose defunding the police, and it’s one reason the President has a strong relationship with the Cuban community, the Venezuelan community.”
Polls show Democratic candidate Joe Biden leading Trump among Hispanics in Florida. Tuesday evening the Trump campaign is holding a Zoom event called “Latinos for Trump: Noche de Oración (Night of Prayer) in Florida.”
His campaign hopes the growing number of Latin American expats here who consider Trump a defender of democracy, and not a danger to it, will tip Florida his way.