Fidel Castro is dead and brother Raúl Castro is no longer president of Cuba. But communism can still move the needle in Miami campaigns.
Decades after the Cuban revolution spawned an exodus that reshaped South Florida culture and U.S. politics in the Caribbean, political exiles are declining in number in Miami and leftist angst is fading. But it's far from gone. And under the right conditions and in the right neighborhoods, evoking the tyranny of dictators can still be an effective tactic in manipulating votes and undercutting opponents.
Take the special election to claim an open county commission seat representing Little Havana, where former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla is ginning up ties between communist regimes and his closest competitor in order to scrap his way back to relevancy. Using a political committee, he's raised the specter of the Castros and repressive Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in order to win a seat that pays only $6,000 a year but carries enormous political power.
It's a throw-back strategy to the days when Fidel Castro was at the height of his power and the whiff of a connection to communist Cuba could doom a campaign or a government contractor. And it remains effective in the heart of Miami's exile community, where low-turnout elections are often won and lost on the ballots of elderly Hispanic voters who religiously participate in local elections.
"The issue of communism, the issue of Maduro, it still resonates," said Dario Moreno, an FIU political science professor and veteran pollster of Miami elections. "But every year it’s a smaller part of the population."
A political strategist by trade, Diaz de la Portilla knows this well. With mail-in ballots already being cast in a district of 95,000 voters, he has attacked his best-known opponent by tying her to an unlikely villain: prominent gas station owner and GOP donor Maximo Alvarez. Mail pieces by Proven Leadership for Miami Dade County tie the Cuba-born Alvarez to Maduro by claiming his business relies on gas from Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil corporation. Diaz de la Portilla says that Alvarez's Sunshine Gasoline Distributors is funding a negative shadow campaign against him using Venezuelan "narcotrafficking" money.
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