LITTLE HAVANA—It was impossible to ignore the layer of red Donald Trump caps underneath the sea of Cuban flags last Friday night.
As the Cuban exile community gathered in Miami’s Little Havana to celebrate the death of its multi-generational nemesis, Fidel Castro, there was one ingredient that didn’t mix well with the banging pans, drums, Cuban flags, and songs of liberation.
It was the Donald Trump paraphernalia. Too many people were wearing Trump hats and waving Trump signs. On the cover of the Miami Herald‘s Sunday edition, which had literally been decades in the making, a man with a Trump hat was front and center. I was in that crowd, a few rows back. There were tons more like him.
Full disclaimer: My family fled communist Cuba, came to the United States, and became avid Republicans. I grew up in a Republican home on the outskirts of Washington, DC, wondering why my parents were the only people I knew who subscribed to the Washington Times and not the Washington Post.
Like so many Cuban-Americans, Republican conservatism formed my political foundation. But the version that I was taught wasn’t based on xenophobia, divisiveness, or white nationalism. I was inculcated with the Republican ideas that government should never interfere with your individual liberties— the right to speak freely, worship, or pursue your dreams in any way you choose. The belief that small government is better than a big, overbearing government.
And that’s why I find it troubling that so many of my fellow Cuban-Americans can celebrate the death of one autocrat while dressed in the official uniform of a new one. Trump is espousing many of the same things that we hated about Castro, even if it’s loosely veiled as rightwing rather than leftwing.
Too many Cuban-Americans are mistaken in believing that the polar opposite of Castro is absolute freedom. It’s not. The political spectrum is a circle not a line. If you go all the way around, you end up back in the same place.
That’s why the opposite of Castro— Italy’s Benito Mussolini, or Chile’s Augusto Pinochet—looks a lot like America’s Donald Trump. It all just different flavors of the same shit soup.
Cuban-Americans were about twice as likely to support Trump than other Latino groups, according to the Pew Research Center. About 54% of Cubans voted for the guy, compared to 26% of other Latino groups.
But let’s remember that Castro also assumed power as a political outsider under the banner of nationalism and the pretense of creating a greater, freer country. That’s the poison of populism—it’s never really about the people, it’s about cult of personality.
Trump is already attacking the civil liberties that Cuban-Americans have come to cherish in the United States. The rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly.
Trump spends his nights feverishly tweeting threats and insults at the press, discrediting reporters, threatening to roll back libel protection, complaining about unfavorable media coverage and photos of his double chin. We’ve seen this before. When Castro came into power he complained about critical coverage before shutting down all the nation’s newspapers, including El Diario De La Marina, which was published by distant members of my family.
Trump supports torture—something that many Cuban-Americans have suffered from personally.
Trump wants to punish the families of “terrorists”— a tactic Castro used for decades against counter-revolutionaries.
Trump wants to create a de-facto registry of Muslims—reminiscent of the faith-based surveillance that worshipers faced when Castro banned the practice of all forms of religion.
The behavior Cuban-Americans found so reprehensible in Castro is somehow tolerated—indeed encouraged—in Trump.
So why are Cuban-Americans supporting this guy? Some, including a few members of my family, have put blind faith in the Republican party, and simply closed their eyes and ears and voted for Trump.
Others support Trump because he’s a strongman, and some Cubans think that the best way to defeat a regime led by a strongman is to back another one led by their own. Trump, it should be noted here, has taken a hardline stance against the Castro government, even though he seems to secretly be stealing plays from their book.
Trump hasn’t minced his words about Castro or Cuba. He bluntly called Castro a “brutal dictator” who ruled over a “totalitarian island.” His stance on Cuba following Fidel’s death plays to Cuban-Americans’ concerns that Obama required no political reforms from the Cuban government when it reestablished diplomatic relations last year.
But Trump’s swagger and bravado on Cuba and other issues doesn’t disguise the fact that his presidency represents the biggest threat in my lifetime to the U.S. democratic system and civil liberties. And like Castro, he’s surrounding himself with a bunch of white people who are out of touch with the issues facing other groups of people in the country. Trump’s advisors and Cabinet picks have long, sordid histories of oppressing LGBTQ and marginalizing black people, Latinos, Muslims and others.
There are also some important differences between Castro and Trump.
- Castro had legitimate revolutionary cred, while Trump thinks being a silver-spoon businessman makes him a revolutionary outsider.
- Castro was an avid student of international relations and world affairs, whereas Trump doesn’t understand the world and isn’t interested.
- Castro talked about social justice and the rights of the poor, while Trump is trying to cut the social welfare safety net.
- Castro wrote long, carefully crafted essays about his thoughts on world happenings, while Trump can barely tweet 140 characters without making a grammatical error or contradicting himself.
- Castro was a savvy political leader, Trump not so.
Still, the two men have enough in common to raise all sorts of red flags in the minds of Cuban-Americans. We have lived through some of the abuses that Trump has promised to implement. We should know better. History won’t absolve us if we don’t learn from it.