US politicos woo Latino voters, often with grating Spanish

Miami (AFP) –


The Democratic presidential hopefuls in Miami this week talked tax rates and immigration in Spanish while across town Republicans touted their "Latinos for Trump" campaign.

These carefully calibrated overtures underscored the importance of Latin voters in the race for the White House -- even if the language skills on display raised eyebrows at times.

"The future of the United States is directly linked to the future of Latinos," Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal International Group and NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, told Politico this week.

The Peruvian-American executive added that "any candidate to reach the White House is going to have to speak to the Latino community."

Politicos from both sides of the aisle have been taking this message to heart, with varying degrees of success.

The Democratic candidates have been dropping in on Univision, the country's largest provider of Spanish-language content, to talk policy over tacos.

The first debate on Wednesday -- broadcast by Univision's rival Telemundo -- descended at times into a three-way game of bilingual one-upmanship between Beto O'Rourke, Cory Booker and Julian Castro.

Even President Donald Trump has been getting in on the act, telling Telemundo of his love of Latinos and asserting that the feeling is mutual thanks to his "toughness at the border."

Language ability is not to be scoffed at, especially in the key battleground of Florida, America's largest swing state, and in a city like Miami, where seven out of 10 residents are Hispanic.

- White liberals -

But the enthusiasm with which some candidates have channeled their inner polyglot has prompted a flood of internet mockery and teasing on the late night chat show circuit.

"He's either trying to lock up the Hispanic vote or he's running for embarrassing dad at a Mexican restaurant," Stephen Colbert said of O'Rourke's efforts.

And while anyone trying to explain complex policy positions in a second language gets full marks for effort, the pronunciation and syntax has furrowed the occasional brow among viewers.

"A Latino listens to that and says, 'these guys can't speak at all,'" said Cuban-American political strategist Giancarlo Sopo.

It's not just the dodgy accents, however -- the tone-deaf sentiments themselves have raised eyebrows.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio prompted groans as he departed Miami airport Thursday with what he hoped would be an inspiring cry of "Hasta la victoria siempre!" ("To victory, forever!").

Critics among the diaspora quickly pointed out that the phrase was deeply associated with Che Guevara, a Communist revolutionary reviled by many Cuban exiles as a sociopathic killer.

But the candidates' attempts at the lingo were not really for Hispanic ears anyway, Sopo maintains -- suggesting a degree of cynicism behind the Latin outreach.

"They were directed at the white liberals who vote in the primaries. They'll see that and say, 'wow, cool, that candidate speaks Spanish," he told AFP.

- Not a voting bloc -

Hispanics are already the largest ethnic minority in the US and are expected to account for more than a quarter of the US population by 2060.

Yet it is a voting bloc that does not actually vote as a bloc at all.

Trump's hard line against leftist governments in Latin America has proved popular with Cuban Americans and Venezuelan exiles.

Meanwhile, the administration's "Latinos for Trump" campaign launched by Vice President Mike Pence in Miami this week capitalizes on Hispanic entrepreneurial pride.

"Latino business leaders are living proof that the American dream is back and stronger than ever," Pence said.

Democrats, on the other hand, have focused on solving the migration woes of people with Mexican and Central American heritage, the largest group of Latinos in the US.

Candidates have patiently listened to the concerns of activists at a deeply controversial migrant children detention center in Homestead, Florida.

In the debates, they have promised to decriminalize undocumented border crossings or provide a path to citizenship and free health care to migrants, regardless of legal status.

That may be a gamble in Florida, where the Hispanic community is made up largely of Puerto Ricans, who are already American citizens, and Cubans, who have historically enjoyed immigration privileges.

"We came here for the opportunities that the United States gives us, freedom and security," said Martin Bermudez, a 47 year-old Salvadoran who demonstrated outside the Miami theater where the Democratic candidates debated.

"Now the Democrats want to bring in socialism and it is a great lack of respect on their part to come here with all of these socialists when the Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan people have suffered so much."