After spending his last campaign and most of his first term demonizing immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, Donald Trump has changed up his rhetoric, calculating that he needs support from particular “Hispanic” groups to win re-election. But voters should not forget that Latinx communities —including some of the very same people he is celebrating now— have been targets of his attacks in the past.
Last week, the White House hosted a group that participated in a failed U.S.-backed invasion to overthrow the Cuban government in 1961. The Trump administration also used the event to recognize the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Mariel boatlift, a series of events that brought some 125,000 Cubans to the U.S. in 1980.
Trump opened with remarks touting his administration’s “ironclad solidarity with the Cuban people” and commitment to promoting “freedom.” Then he announced that the White House is reimposing sanctions intended to cripple the Cuban economy at a time when the pandemic is already causing enormous hardship for everyday Cubans.
The event was Trump’s latest encounter with the small group of Cuban men who make up the “Asociación de Veteranos de Bahia de Cochinos Brigada de Asalto 2506.” In 2016, they endorsed him in his campaign for President.
A couple of weeks ago, Trump claimed on Twitter that he had won the “highly honored Bay of Pigs Award.”
Sleepy Joe Biden has spent 47 years in politics being terrible to Hispanics. Now he is relying on Castro lover Bernie Sanders to help him out. That won’t work! Remember, Miami Cubans gave me the highly honored Bay of Pigs Award for all I have done for our great Cuban Population!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2020
He had not won that award because, at least officially, it did not exist. Eager to defend him, the group responded with a press release describing the plaque they had given him to mark the endorsement as a “recognition award.”
“It is with great satisfaction that we read President Donald J. Trump’s twitter mentioning the event in which the Veterans Association-Brigade 2506 presented a recognition award”
“We strongly support and endorse President Trump” pic.twitter.com/9IyOMTTaKi
— Trump War Room – Text TRUMP to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) September 14, 2020
There is nothing inconsistent about Trump’s relationship with an older generation of largely conservative, mostly white Cubans. But the words White House officials used to discuss the Mariel boatlift were a stark shift from their earlier depictions of this more recent group of Cuban arrivals.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence described the boatlift as a moment when over a hundred thousand people “fled socialism for freedom here in America.” Back in 1980, that was not the story most often told about the people arriving every day from Cuba. After reports circulated that the Cuban government had forced “criminals” onto boats bound for Key West, an initially warm welcome quickly grew cold. While some of the newcomers had spent time in jail in Cuba, press accounts almost never included their complex stories rooted in difficult situations on the island. Many in South Florida and around the country bought into the idea that the Mariel Cubans ought to be feared.
Anti-Black racism profoundly shaped those fears. The boatlift was the first time since the 1959 Cuban revolution that a large number of Black and Brown Cubans arrived in the United States. In other words, the group of Cubans whose arrival triggered the strongest negative reaction was also the least white of any group in recent memory.
Racist thinking undoubtedly also shapes how Trump and his aides have talked about the Mariel boatlift. In 2015, shortly after Trump made the false and outrageous claim that Mexico was “sending rapists,” he went on a radio show and alleged it was similar to when Fidel Castro had “sent over” people who were “hardcore criminals” in the boatlift.
In 2017, Stephen Miller, a top White House advisor on immigration who is widely regarded as a white nationalist used contested evidence from the Mariel boatlift to make wild claims about the economic effects of immigration and justify plans for drastic visa cuts.
Over a very short span, Trump and his allies went from exploiting memories of the boatlift to advance their anti-immigrant agenda to using a contradictory memory of the boatlift to boost his re-election bid. Pence’s words might reflect an updated version of the story told about the Mariel boatlift in South Florida—one that incorporates a select group of the Mariel arrivals into a larger narrative about the assimilation of Cubans in the United States. But it was clear that his change in tone had little to do with the events of 1980. While nobody mentioned Florida’s 29 electoral votes, Pence’s shift in language was really about 2020.
Trump’s pivot to focus on new targets this year may reflect the poor electoral showing of his party after he circulated grotesque distortions about Central American immigration in 2018. Following a summer of massive demonstrations and militant demands for racial justice, he seems to be focused instead on stoking anti-Black racism and red-baiting. But a change in rhetoric is not the same as a change in policy. Trump may have moved on temporarily to other targets in his public comments, but as long as he remains in power he is a threat to Latinx communities.
The White House event this week showed once again how quickly Trump and his allies will alter the stories they tell to fit their personal and political interests. With this administration, “criminals” can become “freedom seekers” overnight. All it takes is for Trump to realize he might gain something from making the switch. It is crucial for everyone —including Cubans and Cuban-Americans in Florida— not to forget that the reverse is also true.
Alexander Stephens writes about migration, race, and criminalization. He is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Michigan.