Miami Latino Protests to Support Ukraine Could Influence U.S. Elections

While some 85% of the American public supports the strict economic sanctions on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, according to the Pew Research Center, some Republicans have been slow to condemn the Russian assault.

Former President Donald Trump called Vladimir Putin a "genius," drawing a rare rebuke from House GOP leader Representative Kevin McCarthy.

Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn called Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky a "thug" and his government "incredibly evil," a comment that sparked criticism from both sides of the aisle.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who often holds court talking about China, Cuba, Israel, and even Australia, avoided talking about Russian aggression against Ukraine during high-profile remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), leading to criticism and calls for him to speak out on the issue, which he eventually did.

But one group that is politically important in a state with pivotal power in presidential elections has no problem speaking out in support of Ukraine: Latinos in South Florida.

After a March rally in Miami where Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans expressed solidarity with Ukraine, Manny Diaz, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, told Newsweek that as a Cuban-American he has personally experienced Russian aggression, when he says they took over Cuba, in essence.

"When I grew up, Russia was the enemy, Russia was communism, the Russian KGB trained Cuba's secret police, and propped up Fidel Castro," he said.

"It's inconceivable to me we would even consider giving Putin any benefit of the doubt," Diaz added.

The rally was held in front of the Versailles restaurant, which bills itself as 'the world's most famous Cuban restaurant,' where Cuban exiles ordering their cafecitos at a walk-up window can often be seen in animated conversations with each other, or reporters looking for a good quote.

Miami-Dade county Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat, warned about the Russian presence in countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the Miami Herald reported.

While Democrats see an opening to show Florida Latinos they are the party firmly on the side of democracy, President Joe Biden has come under a hail of criticism from Republicans in Florida for overtures to Venezuela to ease oil sanctions as a way of offsetting the loss of Russian oil.

Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that Biden's "secret talks" with the regime of Nicolás Maduro were not about replacing Russia's oil, but that "Ukraine is just an excuse for pro-leftist former Obama staffers who already wanted to get close to Maduro & Cuba."

Senator Rick Scott added on Twitter that "the only thing the Biden admin should be discussing with Maduro is the time of his resignation." DeSantis piled on, tweeting it was "wrong for the Biden Administration to beg for oil from Venezuela & legitimize Maduro's communist regime."

The issue of supporting Ukraine comes at a time where Democrats in Florida have been hoping they can stem the tide of losses among Latino voters in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere in the state, losses that helped Trump win Florida in 2020, and could put the state out of reach in 2022 and possibly for the foreseeable future.

Diaz, though, said it was "not surprising" to see Trump opine that Putin was being "savvy" and a "genius" in the lead up to the invasion.

"Look at his [Trump's] history," he said. "While he was president he had a bromance going with Putin, where he trusted his word over his own intelligence agencies."

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, the president of Democracy Movement and the rally organizer, told Newsweek he and others were headed to Washington on Tuesday for meetings to see what help his group could provide to different embassies in the European Union.

He expects to hold more rallies in the coming weeks after his return, and to transmit some of the video to Ukraine through a contact who owns a TV station in the battered country, as he did with a video message from U.S. Senator Bob Menendez during the rally.

Sánchez said he cannot vote because he has had a deportation order to Cuba hanging over his head for 20 years, but said Donald Trump was "very wrong" to make pro-Putin comments.

"The former president should have never ever said something like that," he told Newsweek. "Even though he's not in power he's still a figure that represents this country."

"To say he's a genius and praise what's happening is not only absurd," Sánchez added, "but goes against the national security of the United States."

Juan Antonio Blanco, the president of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, said his group's slogan is that they are not Republican or Democrat, but pro-Cuban. Still, he too chided Trump for comments he saw as ill-considered.

"There is nothing genius about trying to grab the country next door and destroying your own," he told Newsweek, "and that is what Putin has done."

Florida Latinos with ties to Latin America are so staunchly pro-Ukraine, he argued, because of a "feeling we are fighting for a common cause."

"In the case of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, we have suffered the alliances that Putin has established with our countries," Blanco said. "So there is no way, shape, or form that we could be sympathetic to this invasion."

"We the oppressed will always be aligned and fighting for democratic societies," he added, "not 'mafia states.'"

Diaz said Republicans have hurt themselves with a wishy-washy approach to Russian aggression, and predicted that it will have an effect on South Florida's Latinos.

"I think it's going to hurt," he said. "I think it's going to do them damage; it hits too close to home."

He called the assault an "unprovoked invasion with thousands of people dying."

"It has nothing to do with whether you like Biden or Democrats or Republicans," Diaz said, "this should be about Americans supporting a government against our arch enemy."

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Members and supporters of the Ukrainian community gather to rally in support of Ukraine in Miami, Florida, on March 5, 2022. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP/Getty Images