A populist strongman? Democrats struggle with labeling Trump a 'caudillo' in Spanish ads

By Syra Ortiz-Blanes, Miami Herald on

Published in Political News

MIAMI — In the one-minute, Spanish-language campaign ad, a Kissimmee woman named Cecilia reminisces about Venezuela, her homeland. As she drives a black car with Biden-Harris painted in white on her back window, she speaks of her grandmother, her childhood home and her friends.

"Socialism ... was one of the key things that destroyed my country," she reflects. "It can sound wild to compare Donald Trump with Nicolas Maduro, but the reality is that they are very similar." She lists qualities she perceives in both Trump and the Venezuelan leader: "His authoritarianism, his violations of freedom of speech, his fear of opposition ... "

The ad attempts to counter claims — many from President Donald Trump and his campaign — that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is a socialist, while also comparing Trump to Nicolas Maduro, a caudillo, a traditional Latin American authoritarian strongman. Historically, the term has been applied to populist, often charismatic leaders who lead with iron fists and military support. Among the most notable, of both the left and right: Cuba's Fidel Castro, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Chile's Augusto Pinochet and the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo.

"Son Muy Similares" — They Are Very Similar — is not the first ad the Biden-Harris ticket has released that targets Hispanic voters and compares Trump to a Latin American strongman. In late June, the Democratic presidential campaign released a Spanish-dubbed ad called "Cacerolazo," named after a long-lived tradition of Latin American protesting in which demonstrators bang on pots and pans. The ad intersperses video of the president responding to coronavirus and the summer protests against police brutality with scenes of state violence against demonstrators. The screen fades to black, and the words "Fidel, Chavez, Maduro, and Trump..." pop up one by one, then quickly fade away. "Caudillos cut from the same cloth," it concludes, the sounds of pots, pans and crowds layered in the background.

Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans and Biden supporters have characterized Trump's repeated refusal to say he would leave office should he lose, his attacks on the press, and misinformation campaigns as the behavior typical of a caudillo. Many Democratic strategists and political organizers agree that the president has undermined American democracy, but cannot come to a consensus on whether tagging Trump with the caudillo label is an effective way to attract Hispanic voters, particularly those who fled repressive regimes.

Equis Research, a Democratic research and polling group, recently released an extensive summary of its findings on the Hispanic vote in Florida, focusing in particular on Hispanics other than Cubans or Puerto Ricans.


Equis concluded that "Trump's strongman tendencies do hurt him," and that 35% of all Hispanic voters were concerned that Trump was "acting like a dictator." While 29% of Latinos surveyed for the report were worried both about socialism and authoritarianism, Biden still had a big lead over the president, "suggesting that any wariness about the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is overruled by other fears," including Trump's perceived authoritarian tendencies, according to the report.

Carlos Odio, an Equis Research co-founder, does not believe that labeling Trump a caudillo is an effective strategy to rally Cuban American voters.

"The data shows that the caudillo messaging did plant doubts in many Hispanic voters' minds about Donald Trump," said Odio. "But the idea this is the message that is going to persuade swing Cubans? That was never it. If anything what we saw in data was there was a backlash among Cuban voters who didn't like the comparison to Fidel, because there's never going to be anyone who is Fidel, as bad as Fidel, so the comparison just falls flat."

In fact, Odio said the notion that Trump is a caudillo "is not a downside" but "part of the appeal" for some Hispanics.


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