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What you need to know about the 2020 elections across the greater Tampa Bay region.

Is Colombia Interfering In The U.S. Election In Florida – With Tactics It Exported To Florida?

RED SCARE RETROSPECTIVE Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shares his 'Castro-Chavismo' warnings with Republican Miami congressional leaders during his visit to Doral in 2016.
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shares his 'Castro-Chavismo' warnings with Republican Miami congressional leaders during his visit to Doral in 2016.

Anyone who follows the U.S. presidential election knows the headline in Florida right now is Joe Biden’s struggle with the critical Latino vote. A big reason for that challenge is socialismo — that is, the fear-mongering being stoked here that says Biden will turn the U.S. into a socialist regime like Cuba or Venezuela.

But it turns out it’s not just U.S. conservatives who are pushing that line of disinformation for the benefit of President Trump’s re-election campaign. Conservative elected officials in Colombia are also helping drum up the falsehood that Biden is a clone of left-wing Latin American dictators like the late Hugo Chávez.

Arguably the loudest is right-wing Colombian Senator María Fernanda Cabal, who makes social media videos endorsing Trump and writes Biden-bashing op-eds on Colombian websites like "Periódico Debate ," which are popular with Colombian and Latino expats.

In one article Cabal even suggests Biden's lead over Trump in national polls is his political dividend from the the COVID-19 pandemic — because, as she tells it, the virus "was hatched" in communist China for the benefit of liberal politicians.

READ MORE: Calling Colombians: With Florida in Play, Trump and Biden Reach Out to a Latino 'Sleeping Elephant'

But several other conservative Colombian officials have joined the Biden-is-a-Bolshevik fright campaign aimed at Florida Latinos.

“You can call it disinformation, but these are opinions anyone's entitled to have,” argues Colombian Congressman Juan David Vélez, who has the special assignment of representing Colombians living abroad — especially the estimated 1 million Colombians living here in Florida.

Vélez himself has dual Colombian-U.S. citizenship. He splits his time between Bogotá and Miami – and he’s not shy about blurring the line between Colombian and U.S. politics, or about endorsing Trump and other Republican candidates like Maria Elvira Salazar.

Salazar, a Cuban-American, is challenging Democratic Miami Congresswoman Donna Shalala in Florida's 27th District. In a recent online forum hosted by Vélez and right-wing former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is especially popular with conservative Latinos in Florida, Salazar said Biden and the Democrats “have been taken over by the radical socialist left.”

Her only "evidence" was that a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement once said she'd been a Marxist. Still, Vélez and Uribe backed her up.

“We understand that there is a risk of becoming socialist or communist," Vélez told me from his home in Miami, "not only in countries of South America, but also in the United States.”

In a statement to WLRN, Shalala’s campaign said she is “disappointed that [Salazar] is pulling a page out of the Trump playbook by embracing foreign influence in our elections.”

Shalala also points out she has helped enact legislation punishing socialist dictators, including Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Salazar did not respond to a request for comment. But Vélez, who has called Salazar the "guarantee" candidate for South Florida Colombians, insists this is not a case of foreign influence; and he sees nothing wrong with Colombian officials being involved this way, especially because so many Colombians live in the U.S.

“We naturally have a preference about [which U.S. candidates] would be better for Colombia," Vélez says. "The thing is, today with communications technology it’s easier to get involved in another election in countries around the world ... It’s part of globalism. It’s just a new way of understanding politics around the world.

"Colombia is still committed to bipartisanism with the U.S.," he adds. "We can work with Trump or Biden." Of the election involvement issue, Vélez insists, "It's not a big deal."

Vélez's take is shared with many Colombian and Latino voters in Florida. But many others — especially those who, like a plurality of Colombians in Florida, are registered Democrats — say he and other Colombian elected officials are crossing a line.

"If he wants to play partisan politics in Colombia, fine," says Mercedes Minota, a Colombian expat Spanish instructor in Miami and a Biden supporter. "But when he's here he's supposed to be representing the interests of all Colombian [expats], and that means not getting involved in [U.S.] partisan politics.

"I find it disrespectful to his position. How would he react if a U.S. official came to Colombia and started endorsing candidates like Salazar?"

Former centrist Colombian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos says it would be considered a violation of national sovereignty if not illegal — which is why, contrary to the Vélez camp, he does consider the issue a big deal.

Santos felt strongly enough about it to tell an audience at the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce in Bogotá this month, while presenting his new book "An Optimistic Message for a World in Crisis," about a recent call from a U.S. contact close to the Trump Administration.

Santos said that person told him a high-level official in conservative Colombian President Iván Duque's government had reached out to help Trump’s campaign.

“He said to the [Duque administration official] who was doing that, ‘Listen, you’re playing with fire here,’" Santos told me from Bogotá. "I hope they won’t continue to try to intervene in the election, because they are jeopardizing the bipartisan relation between the U.S. and Colombia that has worked so well for so many years.”

Santos won't say who the U.S. contact or the Duque government official is. No evidence has surfaced that anyone in the Colombian administration is colluding with the Trump campaign. WLRN has learned Colombian Republicans in Florida were urging Duque to visit the U.S. this month, including Miami. The idea was apparently under consideration but was dropped because the timing was too close to the November U.S. election.

At the same time, conservative Colombian politicos like Vélez argue Colombian liberals are making their own endorsements. Left-wing Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro recently said if he were an American, he’d vote for Biden. And four years ago, when Santos was President, he himself said then-candidate Donald Trump’s foreign policy was “not in line with what Colombia wants.” He also said Hillary Clinton was a “great ally” of Colombia.

But Santos denies that was an endorsement of Clinton.

“That is very different from saying I want to intervene and help you in the campaign," says Santos, "or to say that Joe Biden is a communist and to organize Colombians to vote for Trump.”

But to understand this Colombian controversy, it's important to remember something else that happened four years ago — an event that's likely the root not just of Colombian involvement in the U.S. election, but the strategy Trump and the Republicans are using with Latino voters now to paint Biden and the Democrats as radical socialists.

And it starts with former President Uribe, the Uribistas of his right-wing Centro Democrático party — and a Colombian restaurant in Doral.

When Uribe came to speak at Mondongo’s Restaurante during a visit to South Florida in October 2016, he had just scored a major political victory back in Colombia. In a referendum, he’d led the defeat of then President Santos’ peace deal with Marxist guerrillas, the FARC.

Uribe was and still is a hero in Colombia for beating the FARC down during his 2002-2010 presidency. By 2016 he had come to see himself as Latin America's anti-leftist field marshal. The idea of a rapprochement with the ransom-kidnapping, drug-trafficking guerrillas — who had killed his father — before they were completely defeated infuriated him.

So for the peace referendum, Uribe and the Centro Democrático created the so-called Castro-Chavismo bogeyman — a reference to Cuba’s late communist dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s late socialist strongman Hugo Chávez. Uribe ominously warned Colombian voters that if they made this peace with the FARC, they’d be opening the door of Colombia's capitalist democracy to Castro-Chavismo.

“The message was, Castro-Chavistas are gonna take over Colombia and then you’re gonna lose your house and your kids, and all this brouhaha,” says Colombia native Juan Pablo Salas, an expat political analyst in Sarasota.

Colombia’s Congress did later pass a peace package that finally ended the country’s half-century-long civil war. But Salas cites Uribe’s 2016 visit to Doral as the moment his Castro-Chavismo blueprint was exported to the U.S. – especially to a group of Republican Miami congressional leaders, including Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who joined him at Mondongo's.

“They were all sitting at the table and looking at him as if he was the messiah,” Salas recalls.

As the GOP delegation watched Uribe whip up the crowd of Colombian and other Latin American expats — shouting reminders that the "Castro-Chavismo platform" can rear its head anywhere — they became more and more convinced that his political tactics could also work in Florida, according to two conservative Colombian community leaders who spoke with the Republican leaders that day.

What emerged from that moment, says Salas, was the epiphany that Republicans could take the red scare up a notch — they could accuse Democrats not just of being soft on Castro-Chavismo, but of being part of it.

“Alvaro Uribe really drove the ball," says Salas. "The language they’re using in Miami nowadays is a mirror of what happened in Colombia back in 2016. Beforehand, nobody would have ever attempted to accuse Joe Biden of being a communist agent. However, now it is a possibility and it's having success.”

Former Colombian President Santos says the biggest mistake he made during the 2016 referendum campaign "was to underestimate the power of that kind of lie."

"It's a strategy that can work," he adds, especially when Colombian elected officials give it more cachet and credibility — in particular on social media platforms like WhatsApp — among Latino voters in a community like South Florida's.

Uribe could not be reached for comment. He was put under house arrest last month and resigned his Senate seat, because he's under investigation for involvement with right-wing paramilitary death squads — and for witness tampering in that case. He has denied the accusations, and the Trump Administration is calling for his release.

Meanwhile, some Miami-Dade County commissioners had planned to rename a Miami street for Uribe this year. That decision now appears to be on hold. But his political methods remain very much alive here in South Florida.
Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Colombian Congressman Juan David Velez (right) with Miami candidate Maria Elvira Salazar when he endorsed her first run for Congress in 2018
/ Facebook
Colombian Congressman Juan David Velez (right) with Miami candidate Maria Elvira Salazar when he endorsed her first run for Congress in 2018

Then Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with President Trump at the White House in 2017.
/ White House
Then Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with President Trump at the White House in 2017.

Right-wing Colombian Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal in a social media video endorsing Trump.
/ Facebook
Right-wing Colombian Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal in a social media video endorsing Trump.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.
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