The Cuban Transplant Turning Florida for Trump
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this YouTube star and GOP convert is winning hearts and minds.
By Nick Fouriezos
- Alex Otaola has an audience of hundreds of thousands with his Spanish-language YouTube show focused on culture — and pro-Trump politics.
- Strategists in both parties say Otaola has been instrumental to a remarkable swing among younger Cuban American voters who now massively favor Trump and could swing Florida.
Joe Biden should be running away with Florida. The Democratic nominee has cut into President Donald Trump’s lead with seniors in the crucial swing state, from the 17-point margin Trump had in 2016 to actually leading with them in a recent NBC poll. However, the race in the Sunshine State remains essentially tied — mostly due to the fact that Trump has gained Latino support since 2016, particularly in the Cuban community.
There are a number of reasons for the shift, from only about half of Cuban Americans in Florida supporting Trump to a sturdy two-thirds. But one of the biggest influences, both Republicans and Democrats agree, is the changing political views of a single man — the 41-year-old YouTube star Alex Otaola, who arrived in South Florida from Cuba in 2003 and has built an audience of hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans since.
“In both surveys and focus groups we saw the impact of YouTube personalities like Alex Otaola,” wrote Carlos Odio, head of Democratic Latino research firm Equis Labs, in a July voter analysis. “He started this Cuban YouTube movement, and now there are dozens,” says Rey Anthony Lastre, the co-chair of the Cuban American Republicans of Florida. “He has mobilized all his viewers, organized caravans of thousands of cars — a sea of cars, you don’t see the end of it — to support Trump, and told them to register to vote. He’s a game-changer.”
That’s the type of moniker Otaola has sought ever since he arrived in South Florida as a bright-eyed gay Cuban immigrant who had won the visa lottery. Speaking little English, Otaola was frustrated with the “mediocre executives of Miami TV channels,” he says now. “They have no creativity.”
So Otaola created his own outlet, a Spanish-language YouTube show covering culture and music, becoming popular while being driven almost entirely by his vivacious personality. Soon, he was being invited on the very channels he derided, and began using his platform to advance political causes — voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and declaring that Barack Obama “demands respect” on local Miami station Mega TV in 2012.
Only Otaola’s American experience has changed dramatically in the past two years. He watched in horror as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became an instant Democratic Party star — despite advancing democratic socialist ideas he feels are a cover for the type of policies he fled in Cuba, a “system that is a fraud, a lie of the thousands of repeated lies … of Fidel Castro and his communism,” says Otaola, his words translated from Spanish. “AOC’s attacks of populist hysteria convinced me that the Democrats were not my place.” The final straw for Otaola was a congressional delegation of six Democrats visiting Cuba in February 2018 — and all but one of them meeting with Raul Castro. “I did the transformation on the show itself, on air,” he says.
The left is mean; it sows envy as a method of control.
Since then, Otaola has become critical to Trump’s rise with Cuban voters in South Florida — particularly arrivals after 1993, a group the FIU Cuba poll found to be the most pro-Obama cohort of Cubans in 2012 and the most pro-Hillary in 2016. Then came a stunning shift: This generation went from 30 percent Republican and 31 percent Democrat in 2016 to 58-9 Republican in 2019. “Essentially the shift away from Democrats among the post-1993 cohort has reversed the gains of the Obama years,” Odio, of Equis Labs, writes.
Of this generation of Cubans, 85 percent said last year that they approved of Trump’s handling of the economy — before this year’s pandemic-related turbulence. Three-quarters of them backed Trump’s actions regarding Cuba and Venezuela.
And, as with Otaola’s experience, the rise of Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez gave new depth to fears of a socialist rise in America. In Miami, Black Lives Matter protesters have been seen “waving flags of Cesar Chavez, of Fidel’s communist movement … even in the mainstream Spanish press they were describing the protesters as Marxist, socialist, things you would never see said in the English press,” Lastre says. Otaola has played into that socialist specter, while doing everything from interviewing the founder of Latinas for Trump on his show to organizing “law and order events” to combat BLM protests.
Trump is “the only president who has applied real pressure to the dictatorship in Havana,” he says, comparing the violence surrounding the protests to the upheaval older Cubans experienced. “They were fooled with promises like the Democrats make today. The state stole their property, their life, their job.” He joined the Black Tuesday campaign on Instagram in June, but added #AllLivesMatter and argues that separating people by race won’t help fight racism. “The left is mean; it sows envy as a method of control.”
Still, Otaola’s efforts aren’t necessarily bound to win Trump the Cuban vote. Biden was the best-liked of the Democratic candidates among Cubans polled by Equis Labs, and yet many of those voters still don’t really know much about his record or stances. Given their history of shifting support quickly with new information, many could switch sides before the election — provided Biden shows up in the Miami media market, knocks Trump on the post-COVID economy and engages more in Hispanic social media. After all, a full third of the post-’93 generation said they had no partisan lean in 2019, meaning their votes may still be undecided. “Many of these post-’93 voters seem gettable, but they are consuming information from only one side,” Odio writes.
For many Cuban Americans, that one side is a charismatic immigrant preaching with the zeal of a convert.