CORAL GABLES (Fla.) -- A growing number of Florida voters are mobilizing to vote in elections across the continent months before the U.S. midterms. Republicans see an opportunity for voters in November.
Ada Duque (45), a Colombian American, was recently in the Colombian consulate to register for her vote in May's presidential election. Colombian Americans are eligible to vote in their own country's elections as long as they have registered.
Duque, like the two dozen Colombian Americans NBC News spoke with, said that her reason for casting her vote was simple.
She said outside the consulate, "I don’t want Petro win." "He will bring down the country, just like Venezuela."
Duque was referring Gustavo Petro, a socialist candidate and ex-guerrilla leader who leads in the polls for May 29th elections. Duque, like many other NBC News interviewees, said that her family and friends in Colombia will flee the country if Petro wins.
Fabio Andrade (a South Florida-based aviation executive) stated that "The threat from Petro is mobilizing people to vote for the Colombian elections and the midterms as a whole." Andrade campaigns for both the U.S. Republicans as well as Centro Democratico, a right-leaning Colombian party.
Exit polls show that while Colombian Americans have always voted Democratic, more than half of them voted in support of President Donald Trump in 2020.
Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University political science professor, said that "Colombians are the new Cubans". He was referring to Cuban American voters who traditionally voted Republican.
Gamarra, a Democrat believes that Colombian Americans have continued to shift toward the Republican Party since 2020 due to the polarization in their homeland.
Gamarra stated that today they are proportionately more conservative in Cuba than Americans because of the Petro factor.
Clout and growing numbers
A recent survey found that more than 60% of Florida Colombians believed U.S. foreign policies were important or very important when deciding whether to vote for a candidate. This is higher than any other polled voter group. They also looked at the situation in their country before making a decision about which candidate to support.
Florida is home to the highest concentration of Colombians living in the United States. According to Pew Research Center analysis, approximately 275,000 eligible voters from Colombia remained in Florida in 2020. This is an increase of about 200,000 who lived in 2015 and about 200,000 in 2015. In a state with narrow margins of victory, it's enough to make an impact.
Their political influence is increasing as a voter bloc. Parties are focusing more on outreach to them.
Florida state senator Annette Taddeo is a Democrat running to be governor. She was born in Colombia. Juan Gonzalez, a Colombian-born National Security Council senior director for Latin America, holds the most important position in the Biden administration's policymaking. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) is a Colombian American, as is Jaime Florez, the director of Hispanic communication for the Republican National Committee.
Andrade is a strong supporter for both Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's former president, and Trump himself -- both of which are polarizing right-wing figures. He has also worked with Gov. Ron DeSantis, Marco Rubio, and Rick Scott are all Republicans and were there to mobilize the non-Cuban American Hispanic vote.
Andrade stated that most Colombian Americans in South Florida are conservative and have been victims of war and conflict. He also said that the majority of them vote for conservative parties back home.
Andrade was present at Trump's Florida campaign events ahead of 2020. He said that members of his campaign team called him election night to express their gratitude for the increased number of Colombian voters, which helped Republicans win in Florida. Two South Florida districts that have large Colombian populations saw their congressional seats flip to Republicans. Biden won Miami-Dade County 9-points. This is a significant drop from the 30 points Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Long-running civil war infiltrates U.S. politics
In the early 2000s, Florida saw a large influx of Colombians from the middle and upper classes. This was during a time when violence and kidnappings were rampant in Colombia. This bloody conflict saw left-wing guerrilla organizations, right-wing paramilitaries and the military involved.
The 52-year-old war killed approximately 220,000 people and defined generations of Colombians. Many of these Colombians now live in the U.S.
Uribe was elected to office in 2002 as Colombians began arriving in Florida. He increased government's attack on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The United States was spending billions of dollars to help the government.
Many Colombians credit Uribe for restoring some normalcy to the country after years of bombings and kidnappings. Uribe's popularity in Colombia has declined, but many Floridians proudly identify themselves as "Uribistas" despite the fact that they don't live the reality of the country, such as corruption and rising poverty.
In 2016, the country's long-running conflict was ended when the FARC (the largest rebel group) and the government signed an agreement that was widely supported by the international community, which included then-President Barack Obama. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Juan Manuel Santos (the Colombian president at that time), for his contribution to the peace pact.
However, Colombians rejected the agreement in a narrow vote and many Colombian Americans living in Florida still oppose it. After the FARC disarmed and was disbanded following the peace agreement, President Joe Biden removed it from the list. The Florida House passed a resolution discrediting Biden's decision. However, the majority of Colombian Americans are not supportive of Biden’s move. Uribe, a strong opponent of the peace agreement, has repeatedly criticized it.
Uribe's popularity is not limited to Latinos. Two streets in Miami-Dade County have been named after him. He popularized the term "Castro-Chavsimo", which refers to Cuba's communist leaders Fidel Castro and Raul Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. It was widely used by Latino Republicans throughout Florida during the 2020 elections.
Trump's campaign ran a digital and TV ad in Florida 2020, claiming that Biden was the "Castro–Chavismo" candidate. Andrade claims the term has exploded in Florida due to its widespread use on social media. It will be used in the next elections in both of these countries, he predicts.
"In Florida? Definitely. South Florida Andrade said, "Put your money on it."
Dems: Breaking "strong link" of the far right
Others may have a different view. Juan Pablo Salas is a Colombian political analyst who lives in Florida and is a Democrat. He believes that the Republican campaigns in Florida began in 2018 with the execution of what Uribe's Centro-Democratico party had done in Colombia.
Salas stated that "the tactics of accusing opponents as communists, socialists, or Castro-Chavistas were the tactics which the Centro-Democratico party created, along with those who were fighting for the peace accords."
Salas stated that he sees a strong connection between Bogota and Washington, along with the far right of Republican Party. "There is synergy among both campaigns, the Centro-Democratico and the Republican campaigns."
Salas and other Colombian Democrats were furious before the 2020 elections, when some Colombian elected officials, such as Sens., began to endorse Salas. Carlos Felipe Mejia and Maria Fernanda Cabal began supporting Republican candidates in the U.S. Uribe also supported them.
Salas stated, "There is interference." "And Colombia has become very significant in that sense because the Colombian vote can push other votes."
South Florida's elected officials have not ceased to court the Colombian American voters that helped them win their elections. Andrade and Colombian community leaders met recently with Florida Republicans including Scott and Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar, Carlos Gimenez and Carlos Gimenez. They expressed dissatisfaction with Petro and criticised Biden for removing FARC from the list.
Evelyn Perez Verdia is a Florida-based Democratic strategist and Colombian American who said that Republicans in Florida make it appear like Colombian voters only have two choices: Petro to the left or Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, their preferred Centro-Democratico candidate to the right. The primary election has 21 candidates.
Perez Verdia stated, "Moderate Candidates must come to the U.S. to share their vision of Colombia and break the illusions that there are only two"
She stated that "Republicans are reaching the same voters with a similar message: Voting here for a Republican is the same thing as voting in Colombia for the right, and a vote to elect a Democrat is like voting in Petro, which couldn’t be further from truth." They kill two birds with one stone.
She stated that Democrats should not take Colombian Americans for granted, and must show them using their language, culture, and history, that they are as important as Puerto Rican or Cuban Americans.
Perez Verdia stated, "That's exactly what I did 2020 in Weston," adding that Biden won Weston "despite the fact that there had been a Latinos For Trump center in Weston."
She stated that countering disinformation was crucial, as there was a flood coming from Colombia in 2020.
Guillermo Garcia (52), and Eugenia Garcia (52), filed with other Colombian Americans who were registering to vote.
Eugenia said, "I only vote to the right," referring both to elections in Colombia and here.
Garcia, who is an investor, said that he agrees and that he enjoys "law and Order, Family Values, and Security."
He stated that Petro winning in Colombia would make things worse than Venezuela, as Colombia has a history of violence.
Ada Duque answered a question about the midterm elections, saying that she would vote Republican. She said that the main focus right now is to vote against Petro.