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

Syra Ortiz-Blanes
·8 min read

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 Nicolás 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 Trump and his campaign — that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is a socialist, while also comparing Trump to Nicolás 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 Chávez, 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, Chávez, 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.

‘The comparison just falls flat’

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.

“That Trump himself acts like a caudillo isn’t incidental, our focus groups suggest, but that it’s part of the package: the same strongman appeal that bolstered Franco, Pinochet or even Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe,” reads the Equis research, “The primary target of this strategy remains Cuban voters,” but also aims to secure votes from other “small and growing blocs” such as Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Colombians.

Abel Iraola, Florida press secretary for NextGenAmerica, a progressive political action committee that focuses on mobilizing the youth vote, also doubts the effectiveness of the language, particularly among younger Latino voters.

“Is that gonna move young Hispanics, or children of Cuban immigrants?” said Iraola, who is Cuban American and grew up in Hialeah. “I care about Cuba, I don’t want to fall into a regime like Cuba, and neither do my friends, but that’s not what’s driving our votes here.”

Iraola said that NextGen’s research has shown that the idea that Trump acts like a caudillo doesn’t register as a top issue among young Hispanic voters.

“I think we should be talking about the ways that he’s actually made our democracy weaker,” he said, citing the rushed nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court as an example.

“They’re not, you know, they’re not the most politically attractive things but that actually shows how he has been authoritarian,” he said. “Just saying, oh he’s a caudillo, I don’t think that moves” young voters.

Community Change Action, the electoral arm of a national organization dedicated to empowering people of color, found through its focus groups that portraying Trump as an authoritarian leader resonated with people from countries that are currently not under a dictatorial regime, such as Mexicans, Colombians, Uruguayans, and Peruvians. But even so, it was not nearly as effective as domestic concerns that Hispanics care about, like COVID-19 and jobs.

“They know Donald Trump is bad. You don’t have to tell them that, but you have to make a real case for why Biden will be better,” said Franco Caliz-Aguilar, a CCA senior political adviser who is Nicaraguan. He said that people who lived under autocrats often didn’t like comparing Trump to Latin American caudillos, even finding the comparison “offensive.”

“Why are we having an argument that splits our communities and that turns off some pretty large constituencies?“ he said. “Why are we sending messages to these people that are gonna divide them instead of saying, here is what you can look forward to in the next administration?”

Odio suggests that Democratic strategists and organizers talk about how “Trump is a weak leader, not a strong one” and how “he undermines democracy.”

Priorities USA, the largest Democratic political action committee in the country, has taken a different approach. It has focused its messaging on how Biden will handle issues on the minds of Hispanic voters, such as healthcare, the coronavirus pandemic, and the economy. But the super PAC has also focused part of its Hispanic outreach strategy on releasing ads that directly compare Trump to Latin American caudillos, dictators, and authoritarians.

In June, a Priorities ad announced that “Trump is behaving like a caudillo,” flashing photos back and forth of Trump, Chavez, Maduro, and Castro. “We know how this ends,” says the narrator in an ominous tone. Another 30-second ad from the PAC titled “Caballero” from mid-July begins, in Spanish: “Our families didn’t come from one country to exchange one caudillo for another.”

The super PAC has engaged with Hispanic communities, and launched its programming in battleground states such as Florida in mid-2019. Its Hispanic-media director, Daniela Martins, said that its strategy was directly informed by on-the-ground conversations with constituents and data-driven research.

“When we would meet with Venezuelans, this was something that they would tell us all the time... ‘He reminds me of Chávez when Chávez started... when he used to joke about staying for longer than his term’,” said Martins.

The organization collected testimonies from Florida Cubans and Venezuelans who have described concerns related to the President’s autocratic tendencies: public intimidation and threats to whistleblowers, his attacks on the freedom of the press, or the undermining of democratic institutions, such as “blatantly using the judiciary system for personal vendettas,” Martins said. On President’s Day, the organization released a series of testimonials, many shot on cellphone cameras, with the hashtag #CaudilloDay.

Still, Martins underscores the importance of appealing to the many complex issues that Hispanics care about. Labeling Trump a caudillo has been part of it, but one that goes hand in hand with other electoral concerns.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Florida-based Democratic strategist with almost two decades of elections experience, doesn’t believe the conversation that democratic strategists should be focused on is whether or not they call Trump a caudillo. Like Martins, she has met Hispanics who left dictatorial regimes that find the caudillo comparisons accurate. She cited the example of a former Venezuelan general who said he was voting for Joe Biden because Trump, in his eyes, was “a Hugo Chávez who spoke English.”

The caudillo comparisons continue across Democratic channels. The Biden-Harris campaign on Monday released an ad in which red tinted photographs and videos of President Trump are intermixed with flashes of Castro and Chávez, as well as refugees who fled Latin American caudillos.

“For the first time, the American Dream is under attack,” a narrator intones. “By our own president.”

The ad calls Trump a “wannabe dictator.”

“This is not Cuba, this is not Venezuela. As immigrants, we know how badly this story can end,” the narrator says. “We Latinos choose Biden. If we don’t, it may be the last time we have the freedom to choose at all.”