TAMPA — Roberto Pizano remembers the pain of life as a political prisoner for 18 years under the late Fidel Castro — forced labor, hunger, torture and the fear of dying without seeing his family.
Now a U.S. citizen, Pizano’s vote for president goes to whoever pledges to change things in communist Cuba.
“My choice for this November has to be a candidate who would strong-arm the Cuban regime,” said Pizano, 82, of Tampa. “And now, that’s Trump.”
Dina Martinez, 44, is one generation removed from those who first resisted Castro’s rule. Born in the United States, she has a different take.
“I am going to vote for Joe Biden even with my eyes closed," said Martinez, whose parents left everything behind in Cuba and started a new life as refugees in the United States. "I believe that Trump does not represent the best of this country and he does not represent everything my parents fought for.”
Among Cuban voters in Florida, loyalties are divided, in part by the memories that come with age — the Cold War, the Mariel boatlift, flimsy rafts crossing the Florida Straits, and the forced exile of almost 2 million Cubans since 1959.
Martinez, born in the United States, says her vote is informed less by history than by democratic values and respect for the ideas of other people.
She represents a fluctuation through the decades in the loyalties of Cuban voters.
In 2002, some 67 percent of registered Cuban voters said they identified with the Republican Party, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. A decade later, when many were pushing for new outreach to Cuba, the number fell to 47 percent. In 2020, the percentage is 58 percent.
The same analysis shows that 38 percent of Cuban voters in 2020 identify with the Democratic Party.
How these loyalties play out during this year’s presidential election is a potentially game-changing question. Florida is seen as one of six states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona are the others — that will determine who wins.
People of Cuban heritage account for the biggest segment of Latino voters in Florida, at 29 percent, followed by Puerto Ricans at 27 percent.
Cubans nationwide also exercise their right to a vote at a greater rate. In the 2016 presidential elections, 58 of Cubans cast their ballots, followed by Dominicans at 49 percent, Puerto Ricans 46 percent and Mexicans 44 percent, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data. Overall, the Latino turnout was 48 percent.
Cubans stand alone among Latinos in their alliance with the Republican Party and generally conservative causes.
Former prisoner Pizano did support Democrat Bill Clinton in his successful bid for election but at a time when Clinton was taking a hard line against the Castro government.
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His son, Rafael Pizano, 39, took up political activism and works with international movements seeking democracy for Cuba and the release of political prisoners there. A Tampa firefighter and paramedic, Rafael Pizano has supported candidates both Republican and Democratic in local races.
“But at the national level it is different,” he said. "I don’t see that the Democrats understand all the problems in Cuba. I also feel that they have not connected with the new generations of Cuban voters. "
Nationwide, 1.4 million Cubans are eligible to vote. More than half of them, 55 percent, are naturalized citizens and at least 65 percent of them live in Florida, according to Census data.
One of these new citizens is Mileyli Estrada, 43, a wife and mother of two. Estrada arrived as a refugee a decade ago from Havana. She is voting in the United States for the first time this fall. Her candidate is Trump.
“I don’t know much about politics but he is the only one who has been strong on the Cuban issue,” said Estrada. “That’s what matters.”
Trump is turning back historic outreach toward Cuba under President Barack Obama, restricting travel and trade to the island, limiting the money that Cuban-Americans can send home and denouncing the Cuban government’s repression of peaceful opposition.
Biden, on the other hand, favors a strategy of bringing democracy to Cuba by boosting support for activists and organizations working inside the island nation.
Support for Trump is especially strong in Miami, where memories of the Castro revolution are personal. An August survey by Florida International University found that said 59 percent of Cubans in Miami plan to vote for Trump compared to 25 percent for Biden. They also give high marks to Trump for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, immigration, health care and Cuba policy.
“Cubans remain a majority Republican ethnic group, and like the majority of Republicans throughout the country, they are supportive of President Trump and his administration’s approach to governing,” said Guillermo Grenier, survey director and head of FIU’s Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies.
The FIU poll pointed out some deviations from the support for the president. While nearly two out of three of those surveyed support the embargo on travel and trade with Cuba, 71 percent found it to be ineffective.
Wilfredo Cancio Isla, a Miami-based Cuban-American journalist, sees this as a sign of change coming with changes in the Cuban population: Nearly half a million Cuban immigrants became U.S. citizens during the past two decades.
“This is an electorate that could play an important role," Cancio said, "because most of them are against restrictive measures and have a different idea of how to deal with the situation in Cuba.”
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