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Venezuelans, Cubans Key To Marco Rubio's Chances On Home Turf

West Miami is a small town of around 6,000 people. Among the many residences is a middle-class home with a basketball hoop in front of it. On the hoop is a sticker for Marco Rubio, which comes as no surprise, since this is Marco Rubio’s house.

“He has a very nice home, among other homes in the area,” said Eduardo Muhina, mayor of West Miami. Most of the houses in West Miami are smaller, his house is one of the newest house in West Miami. It was built, I wanna say 10 years back.”

The city was founded in 1947 by a Jewish community following World War II, but the story surrounding the founding of the city has a more relaxed inspiration: cocktails.

“Basically what they wanted to do was to extend cocktail hour and also gambling,” Muhina said. “That’s how the city was founded.”

Much has changed since then, and the community of West Miami has become more “family-oriented,” according to Muhina. The community is also very Cuban, and largely supportive of Marco Rubio.

Views On Rubio In His Hometown

“We love Marco Rubio. It’s funny because today I was talking about Marco and, the image everybody sees right now is the clean-cut, suit-up guy. But the guy that we see, or the guy that I remember, is when you go to a CVS store and he’s got a baseball cap, he’s got some shorts, some sneakers, and he’s going over there to pick up anything, and then somebody approaches him. He takes the time to talk to whoever, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, he talks to the person, says hello. Very humble guy.”

Muhina says he agrees with Rubio on every issue, and cited his common background with the candidate as another reason for supporting him.

“The difference between Marco and I is I was actually born in Cuba. Marco was born in the states. My parents come from Cuba and we have a similar story,” Muhina said.

Yolanda Aguilar is the city manager for West Miami, and her connections with Rubio go back to when he was city commissioner. Even then, Aguilar says, Rubio had ambitious goals.

“One day, he was walking with the then-assistant director and told him, ‘you know something, I’m going to be president of the United States,’” Aguilar said. “Ever since he was a young man, he had high aspirations and he wanted the highest office in the land, and he made it known to everybody here.”

That was in the early ‘80s, and now the former city commissioner is making his bid for the White House. Though president wasn’t his first choice, apparently.

“I don’t know if this was true or not, but I think before he wanted to become the president, he wanted to be the pope,” Muhina said. “Then he met [his wife] Jeanette, and he had to change his position.”

Florida’s Growing Venezuelan Community

Another prominent demographic in Florida is the growing Venezuelan community. The city of Weston, sometimes called “Westonzuela,” has a significant population of Venezuelans.

“Venezuelan Americans are a bit divided between Democrats and Republicans,” said Evelyn Perez Verdia, a political analyst in Florida. “If we look at the numbers here in Weston, we see that we have 40,000 in all registered to vote, and out of that 13,000 are Hispanic. We see that 4,000 are Democrats, 2,000 are Republicans, but around 6,000 are NPA [no party affiliation], which means we have a lot of people who are undecided.”

According to Verdia, 50 percent of Hispanics in the United States are registered as NPA. She says that, for Hispanics, political parties are not the focus.

“With Hispanics, it’s not much about the party as about the person,” Verdia said. “So we always vote for the person more because a lot of them do not understand the differences between a Democrat and a Republican. They like the person, and that’s why many are NPA, as you see.”

Maurizio Passariello is not one of those people. He is a Democratic political consultant and Venezuelan American. His family brought him to America in 1982, before Venezuelans began flooding into South Florida to flee a crumbling economy and the oppressive regime of Hugo Chavez.

“I was the only Venezuelan I knew when I came here,” Passariello said. “In terms of kids my age, I knew no other Venezuelans.”

Now, he finds Venezuelans everywhere and he believes the community is “still trying to develop its own political identity.”

“People are really sort of learning a little bit about what the dividing lines politically here are in the United States,” he said. “This is still a relatively young immigrant community in the sense that it’s been – the bulk of it has come here in the last 20 years, and there’s still a lot of people arriving and these people are beginning to learn about politics here.”

Passariello predicts that Democratic Venezuelans would not take well to Bernie Sanders, but instead that the bulk of the vote would go to Hillary Clinton. For the Republicans, he says, there is “a lot of affinity for Marco Rubio.”

“I think he’s a candidate that appeals to Hispanics in general, not just for linguistic reasons. I think Venezuelan Republicans appreciate the fact that he has been speaking about issues relating to Venezuela in a very strong way, and I think he will be rewarded for that,” he said.

Voter Turnout

But will they show up to vote? Cuban Americans have been shown to turn out and vote in the past and, according to Verdia, four in 10 Venezuelan Americans are U.S. citizens and are eligible to vote and approximately 42 percent of the 248,000 Venezuelans living in America are in Florida. Verdia is confident that Venezuelans will turn out to vote and have an increasing role in politics in the years to come.

“I think that they do have an influence and they are going to go out and vote,” Verdia said. “More and more, you are going to see as the years pass, I think in five to 10 years you are going to see more Venezuelan Americans in elected office.”

Despite this optimism, she doesn’t believe they will outshine Cubans in political influence. The reason? The so-called “packed bag syndrome.”

“Right now, the Venezuelan American community feel that the [Nicolás] Maduro regime, that he is not going to last too long,” she said. “A lot of people who are involved in politics, or who are even consultants who are Venezuelan American, they always have, like many people from their country, the hope that they one day will return. That’s what stops them, sometimes, from getting involved with politics here.”

Though despite this hope, Verdia says, these people do not end up going home. Instead they spend their lives here, become more involved, and come to a realization about politics in America.

“We realize that government involves us in every possible way, from the education of our children to our stoplights,” Verdia said. “So for us, it’s about time to wake up and to realize that, more than likely, we will be here our life and to start participating, regardless if you’re Republican, regardless if you’re Democrat or you’re an independent. You realize that what happens in this country where you live affects you and it’s time to participate.”

While Rubio lags in the polls here overall, a Mason-Dixon polling and research survey shows him ahead with Hispanics: 62 percent to just 14 percent for Donald Trump.


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West Miami City Manager Yolanda Aguilar (left) and Mayor Eduardo Muhina pose for a photo in front of the West Miami Municipal Building. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
West Miami City Manager Yolanda Aguilar (left) and Mayor Eduardo Muhina pose for a photo in front of the West Miami Municipal Building. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
City Manager Yolanda Aguilar remembers a young Marco Rubio visiting the city's recreation center as a child, and telling people there he had aspirations for the White House. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
City Manager Yolanda Aguilar remembers a young Marco Rubio visiting the city's recreation center as a child, and telling people there he had aspirations for the White House. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

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