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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Seeking Latino support, Trump raises specter of Latin American corruption

Former President Donald Trump greets people during a stop at the Versailles restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood in Miami, June 13, 2023. Trump visited Little Havana in Miami on Tuesday immediately after his arraignment, his latest attempt to cast himself as a man persecuted by his political enemies.

By Neil Vigdor and Frances Robles

The day before former President Donald Trump was arraigned on federal charges, he gave an interview to Americano Media, a conservative Spanish-language broadcaster in South Florida, and described his indictment as a “regression” of democracy.

Minutes before he pleaded not guilty in a Miami courtroom on Tuesday, his spokesperson told reporters that the episode was something “you see in dictatorships like Cuba and Venezuela.”

After he left the courthouse, Trump went directly to a popular Cuban restaurant in Little Havana and prayed with supporters.

As he mounts his political defense against a 37-count indictment, Trump has repeatedly invoked corruption and dysfunction in Latin American governments, casting himself in the role of oppressed political dissident.

It’s a clear effort to try to disparage the government’s case — but also a not-so-subtle play for the sympathies of Latino voters, both in Florida and far beyond.

“They really see it better than other people do,” Trump said Monday in an interview with Americano Media. The host, Carinés Moncada, repeatedly concurred.

“What we’re seeing here is the type of thing, Mr. President, that sadly happens in Latin America,” Moncada said.

Trump’s comparison is, to say the least, a stretch. The former president has been accused of possessing dozens of classified documents after he left office and repeatedly obstructing the government’s attempts to retrieve them from his Mar-a-Lago home. The indictment, which relies on his own lawyer’s notes and photos and aides’ communications, has been described as serious and damning by even some Republican lawyers, including his former attorney general.

The investigation was led by a special counsel to give President Joe Biden, Trump’s former and possibly future rival for the White House, some remove from the case.

That evidence and measure of independence, however, have done little to persuade Republican voters. At least one early poll, conducted by CBS News/YouGov, suggests the vast majority of GOP voters have accepted Trump’s defense that the case amounts to political retribution.

Trump has been particularly focused on persuading Latino voters on that point, a strategy that may be both political and legal. It is possible that the jury pool could be drawn from registered voters in Miami-Dade County, where nearly 70% of the population identified as Latino, according to census data.

More broadly, Trump sees his relative strength with Latino voters across the country as critical to his hopes of returning to the White House. He won about one-third of Latino voters in 2020, according to surveys of the electorate. That was up from 2016, when he received support from less than 30%.

In a May poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, Hispanic voters were about evenly split when surveyed about a rematch between Trump and Biden in 2024.

Trump has used a range of cultural and religious issues to connect with those voters, with success that ranges broadly across geography and demographics. He has also used messages aimed more specifically at voters with close ties to Cuba, Venezuela and Central America. In 2020, repeating language effectively used by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Trump repeatedly cast Biden as a “socialist,” playing on negative associations many Latin American immigrants have with the governments they fled.

His latest remarks go further. Trump has repeatedly alluded to Democrats as “communists,” including during a speech Tuesday night at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

“If the communists get away with this, it won’t stop with me,” he said. “They will not hesitate to ramp up their persecution of Christians, pro-life activists, parents attending school board meetings and even future Republican candidates, which they do.”

Eduardo A. Gamarra, a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University who is also part of its Cuban Research Institute, said the narrative woven by Trump and his surrogates, while false, was a shrewd one.

“It’s reinforced by local media, by much of what of the Trump campaign and other Republicans are saying: that this administration, the Biden administration, is behaving like the banana republics behave, so that’s resonated very intensely here,” he said. “It’s great politics, but it’s not true.”

Gamarra, who was born in Bolivia, said Trump’s courtship was refreshing to many groups of Latino voters because some have been overlooked by many politicians. But he said that his latching onto the premise that he was somehow a political dissident was damaging.

“I think it just sort of propagates the stereotypes about Latin America,” he said. “It’s much more complex than simply the banana republic image.”

The symbolism in Trump’s cameo at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana was clear. A landmark for the Cuban diaspora, the restaurant is frequently visited by politicians looking for support. In 2016, the restaurant hosted Trump and Rudy Giuliani together after Trump’s first debate against Hillary Clinton.

On Tuesday, Trump soaked up support and prayers from the crowd. Paloma Marcos, a native of Nicaragua who has been a U.S. citizen for 15 years, rushed to Versailles with a Trump hat and a sign that said, “I stand with Trump.”

She said many Nicaraguans like her had an affinity for the former president, because he is against communism.

“He knows we support him. The Latino community has had an awakening,” Marcos said. “The curtain has been pulled back.”

The federal indictment of a former president is unprecedented in the United States, but many Latin American presidents have been prosecuted after leaving office.

Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, served more than a year in prison after he left office the first time. Argentina’s former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was sentenced to six years for corruption last year. In Peru, Alejandro Toledo was recently extradited to face a bribery charge. Its former leader, Alberto Fujimori, is serving 25 years in prison.

Arnoldo Alemán of Nicaragua is one of the few former presidents who was arrested in a corruption case despite his own party being in power.

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