It’s five minutes before showtime when Alexander Otaola appears in the control room with a few pages of notes and a bag, carrying his pet monkey, Karma, slung over his shoulder.
He has a brief meeting with his three producers, feeds Karma some milk from a pink sippy cup, and downs a shot of Cuban coffee – a much-needed, pre-show pick-me-up.
In the studio, Otaola settles into a red swivel chair in front a yellow backdrop where for the next three hours – with no breaks to speak of – he’s all energy as he preaches, laughs, dances and sings about topics important and mundane; he highlights oppression on the island of Cuba, roasts Cuban celebrities, invites a handful of his sometimes-bashful online followers to sing.
And over and over, he urges his audience to vote for President Donald J. Trump.
“Señores, este Noviembre, votamos, todos, votamos, y votamos Republicano!”
Otaola, 41, is a YouTube celebrity in Florida, the host of the Spanish-language variety show “Hola Ota-Ola!” which attracts tens of thousands of loyal viewers every evening.
Tonight Otaola is dressed in a bright green T-shirt, blue rimmed glasses, white skinny jeans with torn knees, and an arm full of beaded bracelets.
He’s loud, colorful, outrageous, which is to say he’s not your typical Republican activist.
But in Hispanic-heavy South Florida, Otaola has become a key figure in the reinvigoration of the region’s Republicans, particularly the important Cuban bloc, which had been trending blue.
Early last month, a raft of new polls showing Trump performing surprisingly well among Florida Hispanics sent Democrats and the media into a tizzy. “What do we do?” panicked Democrats wondered in a Politico headline. NBC News wanted to know why Trump’s supposed insults to the Latino community haven’t cost him supporters.
If Trump carries Florida’s Hispanic voters in November, he’d be hard to beat in a state that has served as something of a king-maker in recent presidential elections.
There’s no one, simple answer why Florida’s Hispanic voters seem to be trending toward Trump and Republicans. Talk to them, and in big brush strokes they note the leftward drift of the Democratic Party, the party’s seeming openness to self-described socialists, big city riots that seem remarkably similar to “actos de repudios” (acts of repudiation) in their native countries, the left’s seeming obsession with race and insistence on identifying all Hispanics as “people of color,” and the progressive imposition of the oft-despised “LatinX” identity on their culture.
But some of them just really like Trump. They like his strongman act. And they particularly like the hard line he’s taken with Latin American dictatorships.
Social media influencers like Otaola have seized on this and are using their reach to teach younger Cubans about the island’s real history, to highlight the misery and terror associated with communism and socialism, and to win converts to the conservative cause.
“The objective of the show has always been to reach young Cubans who leave Cuba indoctrinated,” Otaola said in a written interview with National Review.
Politico took notice last month, noting that Otaola is one person whom both Republicans and Democrats credit with helping Trump among South Florida Hispanics.
Otaola’s role in winning Republican support from recent Cuban arrivals cannot be overstated, said Rey Anthony, 24, a Republican activist in Miami and third-generation Cuban American.
“He is the movement,” Anthony said. “I don’t know how to explain it to you. He is the movement.”
In the days after then-President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012, polls in Florida had a sobering message for the state’s Republicans: Obama nearly won the Cuban vote – a typically solid Republican bloc – and won handily among every other Hispanic group.
“Obama is picking the Republican lock in Florida,” pollster Fernand Amandi told the Miami Herald at the time.
Hillary Clinton continued making inroads into the Cuban vote in 2016.
Polls showed younger Cuban-Americans and newer arrivals to the U.S. were less inclined to identify as Republicans simply because their parents did. And they were becoming increasingly comfortable with the Democratic Party, according to a recent deep-dive analysis of Florida’s Cuban vote by Equis Research, a Democratic Latino research firm.
The analysis found that Cubans who’d arrived in Florida after 1993, during an economic crisis on the island, were the most pro-Obama and anti-Trump cohort of Cuban-American voters.
But something strange has occurred since 2016. For some reason, almost all of the left’s gains with Cuban-American voters have been wiped out.
Over the past few years, the Equis polling has shown a dramatic shift by that same post-93 cohort in the Republican direction. The sample sizes were small, so the extent of the swing isn’t perfectly clear, but “the trend is undeniable,” according to the analysis.
The Republican drift became even more clear in early September when new polls showed strong support for Trump among Florida’s Hispanic population.
An NBC News/Marist poll found Trump leading Democratic nominee Joe Biden 50% to 46%, while a Quinnipiac University poll showed Trump ahead 45% to 43%. And Trump was running even with Biden among Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous and solidly-Democratic community. Democrats were rattled.
Political analysts noted that Trump isn’t likely to win in Miami-Dade County, but he doesn’t need to. Cutting into the Hispanic vote there would greatly increase his chances in Florida.
“President Trump is going to lose in Miami-Dade County, OK. But what will matter is if you have 10,000 more Venezuelans and 30,000 more Colombians and maybe 40,000 more Nicaraguans who vote for Trump, because in the context of the state, that’s where the sum goes,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University political science professor and pollster who studies American politics and its impact on Latin America.
A Florida International University poll released just last week continued to show Trump with commanding leads over Biden among Cuban voters of all ages. And the poll showed that 76% of Cuban-Americans who arrived between 2010 and 2015 identify as Republicans.
Gamarra’s polling has found that overall Hispanic enthusiasm for Biden is well below the enthusiasm Hispanics showed for Hillary Clinton in 2016, nationally and in Florida.
He said Republican messaging that links Democrats to radical socialism “has worked very well.”
“That is absolutely part of what explains the trend,” Gamarra said, though he mostly finds the arguments disingenuous.
He also notes that Republicans have championed school choice, a key issue with many Hispanic voters, and social values that align with many religious Hispanics.
And Trump’s regular trips to South Florida to meet with Hispanic leaders and court Hispanic voters have made Cuban-Americans in particular “believe that they have been absolutely respected by this president,” Gamarra said.
Armando Ibarra, 35, president of the Miami Young Republicans, said the level of excitement about the election is palpable among Hispanic Republicans in South Florida, particularly among younger Hispanics. He said they don’t see Trump as the lesser of two evils.
They approve of the sanctions Trump has placed on Venezuela and the hardline stance his administration has taken against that country’s socialist regime, which is behind a humanitarian crisis unparalleled in the region. And they approve of Trump putting new restrictions on travel and investment in Cuba, a stark contrast to Obama’s rapprochement policy, which offered an olive branch to the country’s communist leaders.
“President Trump has stood with the people of Cuba and Venezuela and Nicaragua stronger than any president has in recent history,” Ibarra said.
Polling showed Obama’s policy efforts toward Cuba were popular, even in the Cuban-American community, Gamarra said.
Ibarra believes younger Cubans gave Obama’s policies a chance, but now they’re recoiling, worried that the efforts only served to prolong communist rule of the island.
“And now we have people like Otaola who know how to speak to them, who get that audience,” Ibarra said. “They’re seeing these things, and being called to action.”
Seeing things clearly
It’s the night after the presidential debate, and Otaola has a lot of material to work with.
He shows clips of Trump sparring with Biden and debate moderator Chris Wallace. He cheers when Trump says he brought jobs back to the country.
Menacing music plays in the background when Otaola talks about Democrats and Antifa.
Otaola’s show is unscripted, a producer says. He’s working off his notes. His producers know which music to play and which graphics, photos and cartoons to add to the screen because “we’re connected,” one says – an almost psychic bond.
Otaola is clearly happy with a Telemundo poll that showed two-thirds of the station’s viewers thought Trump won the debate. They show a cartoon of Trump literally spanking Biden.
This turn toward Republicans and toward Trump is still relatively new to Otaola, who was born and raised in Cuba and moved to Miami in 2003 after winning a visa lottery.
When he first got to the U.S., he was a registered Democrat, and voted for Obama and Clinton. But looking back, Otaola said, he had been indoctrinated by the Cuban government to support Democrats in the United States. When he got to the U.S., he said, “I couldn’t see things clearly.”
“You arrive here and you keep thinking with the limitations that they imposed on you during your life on the island,” he said, describing growing up in Cuba as “living without dreams.”
He said he began to evolve when he saw Democrats traveling to Cuba to learn about the country’s socialized health care system during the thaw in relations under Obama.
Cuba’s health system, he said, “exploits its professionals and sells them around the world, under the cloak of ‘humanitarian aid.’ That is how they contaminate nations and penetrate democracies.”
The 2018 election of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, was the final straw.
“I decided to quit (the Democratic Party) live on the show,” Otaola said. “I became a Republican in front of everyone.”
Otaola was still living in Cuba when he began working as an actor in radio novels and soap operas, he said. Once in Miami, he got into comedy and began working in local TV.
He launched “Hola Ota-Ola!” in April 2017, and records the show from a small studio on the ground floor of an ocean-front Miami high rise.
He uses celebrities, jokes and pop culture to attract viewers, he said, but he’s always been interested in politics. The point of the show has always been “to warn and help the awakening of Cuban-Americans,” so they can finish the fight of their elders and protect their adopted nation, he said.
Otaola said it’s clear to him many other Cuban-Americans have made a similar political journey. “Cubans increasingly detest everything that smells like lefties,” he said.
His shows, broadcast live but archived on YouTube, typically rack up over 100,000 views in a matter of days. And his audience appears to be loyal and committed.
In March, the Miami Herald took notice when Otaola organized a large car caravan for his followers to support Trump and show their disdain for Cuba’s communist government.
Otaola also has feuded with Cuban celebrities and musicians who travel between the island and the U.S., and don’t speak out about the Cuban government, according to the Herald.
Otaola said he can’t see himself voting for Democrats again. The Democratic Party needs to reinvent itself if it doesn’t want to “lose everyone who loves freedom, security and growth,” he said, calling the political left a “breeding ground for the lazy, resentful and losers.”
When asked if he sees himself as a new style of Republican, Otaola demurs.
“I don’t know, I never propose to be different,” he said. “I simply am.”
But he hopes more traditional Republicans will look at his results, which he calls “epic,” and begin to realize how the younger generations work and consume media.
“Whoever implements it first will have an advantage,” he said.
Standing up to dictators
Cuban-Americans aren’t the only bloc of Florida Hispanics trending toward Trump.
About two-thirds of Venezuelan-Americans are planning to vote for Trump in November, according to a recent poll out of the University of North Florida.
Venezuela has fallen into chaos under the leadership of dictators Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, and Trump has levied severe and wide-ranging sanctions on the government.
The Venezuelan-American population in Florida is small; only about 55,000 are eligible to vote.
Lourdes Ubieta, 53, a Venezuelan-American journalist who fled her native country after the Chavez took power, identifies as a political independent. But she said she’s behind Trump “5,000%” because of his hardline foreign policy in Latin America.
“People understand that after 20 years, the only president who has stood up firmly against the Venezuelan regime is Trump. Not Bush. Not Obama. It’s President Trump,” she said.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida who is a Nicaraguan-American, said the party itself hasn’t made a specific push to win over Hispanic voters. “We want to increase the vote statewide,” she said, but added that they make note of issues that resonate specifically with the state’s Hispanic voters.
“When it comes to foreign policy, there is no question about it that that’s an issue that is unique to Hispanic voters,” she said. “We look at what happens in Latin America almost like local news.”
Miguel Arango, 25, and his brother Federico, 30, are Colombian-Americans and one-time Obama supporters who have become full-fledged Trump backers.
They are the leaders of a nonpartisan music group, “Voices of Freedom,” which performs for veterans groups and at Honor Flight ceremonies. They also have an offshoot group, “Spirit of 76,” which performs at Republican rallies and campaign events, and have composed a song they hope will adopted as the theme of the Space Force.
Miguel Arango was in middle school in 2008, and remembers waiting in line for eight hours with his Democratic family members who were voting for Obama. “It was electrifying,” he recalled.
But over the last eight years, the brothers have evolved politically. They took to the internet to become educated about socialism in Latin America, and to take a closer look at Trump, finding that mainstream media claims of his alleged racism were overblown, they said.
Like the young Cuban Republicans who flock to Otaola, the Arango brothers credit internet-savy new media voices like Steven Crowder and Ben Shapiro for inspiring their political switch.
They said the Democratic Party is moving too far to the left, coalescing around policies espoused by open socialists like Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.
Not all Hispanic groups are leaning red this year in Florida. Puerto Rican voters still overwhelmingly support Democrats, and their numbers are on the rise.
Daniela Ferrera, 22, co-founder of the Democratic group “Cubanos con Biden,” hosted a pro-Biden car caravan on Wednesday outside Versailles Cuban restaurant, the heart of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Several people passing by accused the group of being “socialistos,”an attack the members find frustrating and hear constantly.
Ferrera, a former Republican, said calling Biden and Harris socialists is just a political tactic.
Even though Biden has clearly swung to the left and said that if elected he would go down as “one of the most progressive presidents in American history,” to Ferrera he is still a moderate.
“They’re trying to exploit the trauma of our community for votes,” she said. “They like to use the socialism, communism bogeyman when there’s nothing factual to back that up.”
But Rey Anthony, the Cuban-American Republican activist, said the leftward tack of the Democratic Party is real and a legitimate concern in his community.
He points to video of Obama doing the wave at a baseball game with Cuba’s then-President Raul Castro in 2016. He points to Sanders praising a Cuban literacy program. He points to the democratic socialists elected to Congress who’ve become Democratic Party celebrities.
“The Democratic Party has been hijacked by the radical left,” he said. “That’s very worrisome to people in this community who’ve lived through socialism, understand the horrors of socialism, and don’t want this place of refuge to become another failed socialist experiment.”