DORAL, Fla. — In this Miami suburb, where a growing Venezuelan community has nestled amid neat condos and cozy tile-roofed homes, contempt for Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, can seem thicker than the stench of nearby garbage dumps that still sometimes cuts the air.
Like many immigrants from that volatile South American nation, Nihar Perez Rojas, 51, is so eager for an end to his socialist regime that she cheered President Trump when he first backed Maduro’s opposition in January. But nine months later, Maduro remains in power, and her family’s loyalties to Trump have split, even as his campaign touts his antisocialism stance to win support in this crucial swing state.
Although Perez Rojas’s husband is likely to vote for Trump next November for precisely that reason, she and her children probably will not.
“I’d say the majority of Latinos here support Trump because they believe he will put an end to socialism, put an end to Maduro,” she said. “Is that possibility worth turning a blind eye to everything else? I ask myself that every day.”
With an uphill reelection battle and an impeachment inquiry hanging over his head, Trump has seized on — and amplified — socialist fears, painting all Democrats as purveyors of a dangerous ideology that could spell an economic catastrophe of Venezuelan proportions for the United States. Socialism is a wedge issue that has long divided Latinos in Florida and could serve as a rallying cry for conservatives nationwide, political strategists say.
“It’s nothing new here,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant in Miami. “What has been interesting is that in the last two years it has been turned into a national marketing campaign and a true effort to define Democrats under this cloud of socialism.”
On the American political left, democratic socialism has become the calling card of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. It also has a powerful attraction for young activists frustrated with income inequality and a warming planet and eager for universal health care and free public college.
A Gallup poll this spring found that 4 in 10 Americans now embrace some form of socialism. But those views appear to be largely based on the European version of socialism practiced in France and Italy.
For many expatriates and exiles of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, socialism elicits fears of economic decline, authoritarian leaders — and for some, memories of the food shortages, poor public services, and rampant corruption that they hoped they had left behind.
Even if Trump’s antisocialism appeals fail to resonate nationally, the strategy still could be key to his campaign if it simply helps him win Florida, a state crucial to his reelection.
Trump has invoked the threat of socialism in speeches, rallies, and conferences — and as his reelection campaign rolled out an aggressive voter initiative in June, “Latinos for Trump.” He has cranked up the warnings of socialist doom as an impeachment inquiry has embroiled his administration.
“One of the most serious challenges our countries face is the specter of socialism; it’s the wrecker of nations and destroyer of societies,” Trump told the United Nations General Assembly last month.
For more than two decades, Republicans in Florida — home to 4.3 million Latinos and the largest US population of Venezuelans — have used the threat of socialism with mixed results to court an older and more conservative generation of Cuban-American voters. But with roughly 190,000 Venezuelans arriving in the past decade, some strategists see Republicans bidding for a new wave of supporters.
Trump followed the Republican playbook in Florida in 2016, eking out a narrow victory in part by touting an aggressive foreign policy in Latin America that helped him do better with Latino voters than he did nationally. Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Rick Scott, both Republicans, deployed the strategy again to win close races in 2018.
Grass-roots voter mobilization groups and the Florida Democratic Party have sought to punch back, putting political organizers in every major city. As Trump warns against the dangers of Maduro, they tell voters, he has rejected a temporary protection program for Venezuelans and slashed the number of refugees admitted into the United States to record lows.
“We are trying to tell people that what Donald Trump is doing is not OK,” said Luisana Pérez Fernández, who directs the state Democratic Party’s Hispanic communications.
But socialism counter-messaging also must come from national Democrats to limit the effects of the strategy, analysts said.
“We always compare it to a Bay of Pigs moment,” said Gustavo Perez, who recently rebooted the Venezuelan Democratic Club in Miami, referring to the failed US-backed invasion of Cuba under President John F. Kennedy that turned Cuban-Americans away from Democrats. “We can lose a generation of civically engaged people who are doing well and share our values but because they haven’t been contacted where they live, they won’t want to support our candidates when it really matters.”
So far, Democratic political analysts have been disappointed. The party’s presidential debates have only lightly touched on the power struggle over the legitimacy of Maduro’s government that has plunged Venezuela into economic decline and spurred a migration crisis.
“Anybody who does what Maduro does is a vicious tyrant,” Sanders said at the September debate, arguing that his own campaign platform was about treating health care as a human right, providing free child care, and giving everyone a living wage. “In terms of democratic socialism, to equate what goes on in Venezuela with what I believe is extremely unfair.”
During a TV break in the debate, meanwhile, an ad played on some stations nationwide featured a burning photo of Ocasio-Cortez and images of skulls as a Republican House candidate warned of socialism, pointing to the Khmer Rouge movement in Cambodia.
Some Venezuelans saw the ad online from their homes in Doral, nicknamed Little Venezuela or Doralzuela. Once an area of empty warehouses and cow pastures flanked by two dumps, the mushrooming enclave that is home to a Trump golf resort now hosts plazas and gated communities along wide avenues lined with palm trees and gardenias.
In April, when Trump decided to back calls for military opposition from Maduro’s opponent, Juan Guaidó, hundreds of Venezuelan expats and exiles gathered to celebrate at El Arepazo, a popular diner with Venezuelan and American flags flying over its roof.
“Something that this president has done that others haven’t is defend Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from this radical communism; it’s a total backward slide against democracy,” Victor Piscano, 60, railed at the diner on a recent afternoon. That is why he said he planned “to vote for Donald — 100 percent.”
Perez Rojas and her husband, Alejandro Marcano Santelli, 51, live with their children in a nearby subdivision of two-story homes hugging a lagoon.
The family fled Venezuela 10 years ago as the country descended into crisis. Marcano Santelli, a journalist at an outlet opposed to the socialist regimes of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, remembers the constant death threats and fear for the family’s children.
It is not because of his mistrust in American institutions that he voted for a political outsider like Trump, he said, but precisely because of his trust in them.
“He’s a businessman; businessmen aren’t communists,” Marcano Santelli said. “If he doesn’t work out, the system will push him out.”
Until then, he will continue to believe Trump is the aggressive world leader who can stop Maduro and crush a dangerous ideology he blames for Venezuela’s decline. Marcano Santelli said he doesn’t like Trump’s racist rhetoric but is not necessarily against a hard line on immigration.
Still, Perez Rojas said she can’t help but see her family in those that the Trump administration separated at the border or her children in those left without basic necessities at the Homestead detention center not far from their home.
“We came here legally,” she said, “but we are immigrants.”