CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Months before the U.S. midterms, a growing group of Florida voters have been mobilizing to vote in elections a continent away — while Republicans see an opportunity to gain voters in November.
Ada Duque, 45, is Colombian American and was recently at the Colombian consulate here registering to vote in her home country’s presidential elections in May. Colombian Americans can vote in elections in their home country as long as they register.
Like some two dozen other Colombian Americans NBC News spoke to, Duque said the reason she wanted to cast her ballot was simple.
“I don’t want Petro to win,” she said outside the consulate. “He will bring the country down, just like Venezuela.”
Duque was referring to Gustavo Petro, the socialist candidate and former guerrilla leader who is leading in the polls for the May 29 elections. Like many others NBC News spoke to, Duque said her family and friends in Colombia are bracing to flee the country if Petro wins the election.
“The threat of Petro is mobilizing people for the Colombia elections and for the midterms as well,” said Fabio Andrade, a South-Florida based aviation executive. Campaigning for both U.S. Republicans and the Colombian right-leaning party, Centro Democrático, Andrade uses a similar message: “Stop the takeover from socialists.”
While Colombian Americans traditionally voted Democratic, over half of them voted for President Donald Trump in 2020, exit polls suggest.
“Colombians have become the new Cubans,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, referring to Cuban American voters, who have traditionally voted Republican.
Gamarra, who’s a Democrat, believes that since 2020, Colombian Americans have continued shifting toward the Republican Party because of the polarization back in their home country.
“Today they’re proportionately more conservative than Cuban Americans,” said Gamarra, “because of the Petro factor.”
Growing numbers — and clout
In a recent survey, over 60 percent of Florida Colombians said U.S. foreign policy was important or very important in their decision to vote for a candidate — more than any other voter group polled. The survey also showed they look at what’s happening in their home country before deciding what candidate to support.
Florida has the largest concentration of Colombians in the U.S. In 2020, about 275,000 Colombian eligible voters lived in Florida, up from about 200,000 in 2015, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of American Community Survey data. It’s enough to make a dent in a state where elections are usually won by small margins.
As a voter bloc, their political clout is growing, with parties focusing on direct outreach to them.
Florida state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat running for governor, grew up in Colombia. The Biden administration’s most important position in crafting U.S. policy toward Latin America is held by Colombian-born Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is Colombian American and so is the director of Hispanic communications for the Republican National Committee, Jaime Florez.
Andrade is a strong supporter of both former presidents Trump and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia — both polarizing right-wing figures. And he has worked with the campaigns of Gov. Ron DeSantis and both of the state’s U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott — all three are Republicans — to mobilize the state’s non-Cuban American Hispanic vote.
“In South Florida, most of the Colombian Americans are very much conservative, very much victims of the war, and victims of the conflict,” said Andrade, adding that the vast majority vote for conservative parties in their home country.
Andrade joined Trump at campaign events in Florida ahead of the 2020 elections and said members of the campaign team called him on election night to congratulate him on the increase in Colombian voters who helped Republicans make gains in Florida. Two South Florida districts with significant Colombian populations had congressional seats flip to Republicans. Biden won Miami-Dade County by 9-points, a big drop from the 30-point margin Hillary Clinton had in 2016.
A long civil war spills into U.S. politics
Florida had an influx of middle- and middle-upper-class Colombians in the early 2000s, as violence and kidnappings raged in their country. The bloody conflict involved left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, the military and drug cartels.
The war that lasted 52 years killed about 220,000 and defined generations of Colombians, many of whom now live in the U.S.
In 2002, as Colombians were streaming into Florida, Uribe took office and increased the government’s offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The U.S. was pumping billions of dollars to support the government.
Many Colombians credit Uribe with getting the country back to some form of normalcy after years of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. And while Uribe’s popularity has declined in Colombia, many in Florida proudly call themselves “Uribistas.” Critics say they just have a nostalgic view of Uribe and aren’t living the realities the country is facing, like corruption and soaring poverty.
The country’s long-running conflict ended in 2016, when the FARC, the largest rebel group, and the government signed a peace deal broadly supported by the international community, including then-President Barack Obama. The pact won global praise and the Colombian president at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Colombians narrowly rejected the accord in a referendum and many Colombian Americans in Florida are still against it. President Joe Biden removed the FARC from the list of foreign terrorist organizations since it disarmed and disbanded after the peace accord. But Colombian Americans have largely been unsupportive of Biden’s move, and the Florida House recently passed a resolution rebuking it. Uribe is a staunch opponent of the peace accord and has constantly railed against it.
Uribe’s popularity in Florida transcends to other Latino groups. Two streets in Miami-Dade County are named after him. A term he popularized years ago, “Castro-Chavsimo” — referring to Cuba’s communist leaders, Fidel and Raúl Castro, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez — became prominent during the 2020 elections and widely used by Latino Republicans in Florida.
The Trump campaign ran a digital and television ad in Florida in 2020 claiming Biden was the “Castro-Chavismo candidate.” Andrade says the term exploded in popularity in Florida because of its wide use on social media. He predicts it will continue being used in coming elections in both countries.
“In Florida? Definitely. In South Florida? Put your money on it,” said Andrade.
Dems: Breaking the far right’s “strong link”
Others have a different perspective. Juan Pablo Salas, a Colombian political analyst and Democrat based in Florida, believes that Republican campaigns in Florida, beginning in the 2018 midterm elections, were run based on what was previously executed in Colombia by the Centro-Democrático party, founded by Uribe and others.
“The tactics, including accusing opponents of being communists, socialists or Castro-Chavistas, were the tactics that the Centro-Democrático party developed, along with those who were fighting the peace accords,” said Salas.
“I see a strong link between Bogotá, Miami and Washington with the far right of the Republican Party,” Salas said. “There is synergy between both campaigns, the Centro-Democratico campaign and the Republican campaign.”
Salas and other Colombian Democrats were outraged ahead of the 2020 elections when a few Colombian elected officials, including Colombian Sens. María Fernanda Cabal and Carlos Felipe Mejía, began endorsing Republican candidates in the U.S. Uribe endorsed them as well.
“There is interference,” said Salas. “And Colombia has become very important in that sense, because the Colombian vote is able to push other votes.”
In South Florida, elected officials here haven’t refrained from courting the Colombian American voters who helped them get elected. At a recent roundtable, Andrade and Colombian community leaders met with Florida Republicans, including Scott, and Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, and expressed their displeasure with Petro and criticized Biden for removing the FARC from the list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Evelyn Pérez Verdía, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who is Colombian American, said Republicans in Florida make it seem like Colombian voters have only two options: Petro on the left or their preferred Centro-Democrático candidate on the right, Óscar Iván Zuluaga. There are 21 candidates running in the primary election.
“Moderate candidates have to come to the U.S. and share their vision for Colombia and break the optics that there are only two candidates,” said Pérez Verdía.
“Republicans are reaching out to the same voters with the same message: Voting for a Republican here is the same as voting for the right in Colombia, and a vote for a Democrat is like voting for Petro, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said. “They kill two birds with one stone.”
She said Democrats cannot take Colombian Americans for granted and need to show them, using their language and culture, that they are just as important as Cuban American or Puerto Rican voters.
“That’s what I did in 2020 in Weston,” a city in Southern Florida with a heavy Colombian population, Pérez Verdía said, adding that Biden won Weston “despite there having been a Latinos for Trump center in Weston as well.”
She also said countering disinformation is paramount, since in 2020 there was a flood of disinformation coming from Colombia.
Outside the Colombian consulate recently, Guillermo García, 52, and his wife Eugenia filed out with other Colombian Americans that were registering to vote.
“I only vote for the right,” said Eugenia, referring to elections in Colombia and here.
Garcia, an investor, agreed and said he likes “law and order, family values and security.”
He said if Petro wins in Colombia, “perhaps things will be worse than Venezuela because we have a history of violence in the country.”
Asked about the midterm election, Ada Duque said she will be voting Republican. But right now, she said, the focus is on voting against Petro.