As ballots continue to be counted across our nation, much of the political world is puzzled that President Trump performed so well with Cuban American voters. In our national political conversation, the Cuban American community is often rolled into the monolith known as “the Latino vote.” However, what propels millions of people in my community to vote — individual liberty, lower taxes, smaller government, and a muscular foreign policy confronting Latin American dictators — is lost when the news media speaks of Hispanics in 30-second generalities.
Similar to some Republican candidates in Florida this year, my first race for Congress, in 1989, was written off by pundits. As the first Hispanic woman and first Cuban American in Congress, I can testify that the Cuban American vote was crucial. People who have fled tyranny — whose right to vote was violently ripped from them by dictators like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, and Daniel Ortega — treasure the right to vote and to make their voices heard.
A strong foreign policy message resonates particularly well with Hispanics who have lost family members to dictatorships, and who fled those dictatorships and the economic despair that is the inevitable consequence of flawed socialist policies and false promises. Early projected results, according to NBC News exit polls, demonstrated Trump winning 47 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida. Further data show that he won 55 percent of the Cuban American vote, 30 percent of the Puerto Rican vote, and 48 percent of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote. These numbers demonstrate that Hispanics vote and, with the right message, are an important voting bloc, capable of changing the course of elections up and down the ballot.
Beyond the race for the White House, South Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which I proudly represented for 29 years, returned to its home in the Republican Party, with the election of former journalist Maria Elvira Salazar. So did the neighboring 26th District, with the election of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
Florida’s 26th and 27th Districts are similar in some respects. Both seats had gone to Democrats in 2018, Debbie Mucarsel Powell and Donna Shalala. Early investments by the National Republican Congressional Committee demonstrated a long-term commitment to the Cuban American and non-Cuban Hispanic vote. This commitment helped flip the seats red. In contrast, Democratic outreach to the Cuban American community, which is consistently last-minute, did seemingly little to change the calculus for most voters.
Since the 2016 election, the Trump administration has courted the Hispanic vote with strong policies against dictators in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The messaging resonated with our community. There are first, second, and even third generations of Hispanic immigrants from countries suffering under socialist and communist tyrannies. They often have relatives in their native country or an interest in freedom and democracy for their native country. Understanding our community’s strong family bonds and loyalty is essential to comprehending how international relations becomes a domestic campaign priority and influences the vote of this population.
Time and again, Miami-Dade County demonstrates its diversity. Candidates who invest in Miami and in Florida, with a message of personal liberty, early and consistently, have the best chance of capturing the Cuban American vote. Hispanics who have fled socialist tyrannies have heard the false promises of a free lunch too many times. They seek candidates who speak of the freedom of individual opportunity.
In 1989, my Democrat opponent famously declared “this is an American seat.” He was right. Cuban Americans are Americans, and those who recognize us and treat us as such, with commensurate long-term investment in our community, are the ones who will emerge victorious in elections.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen represented Florida’s 27th congressional district from 1989 to 2019, and was chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 2011-2013. She was the first Cuban American and Latina elected to Congress.