Analysis: Latino Republican Senators Cruz, Rubio and the backing of Trump's caudillo playbook

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As was true throughout his presidency Donald Trump could count on the Senate’s two Latino Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz, to back him up.

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In his four years in office, they had rarely opposed him and often enabled him.

Cruz of Texas was one of the leaders of the group of Republicans who followed Trump on questioning fair election results and voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s win even after the violent attack on the Capitol.

Although Rubio didn’t join Cruz in voting to dispute the election results and criticized the Capitol attack, he did not condemn Trump by name or tie the violence to him.

On Saturday both refused to convict Trump on the impeachment charge that he had incited the deadly violent Capitol attack, opening the door for the former president to run again, although both are seen as wanting to run for president too.

Trump sought to change the outcome of free and fair elections run by bipartisan officials and found to be legitimate by the courts, including the Supreme Court. He then insisted Vice President Mike Pence reject the process certifying Biden’s win, and when Pence didn’t do it Trump attacked him on Twitter as Pence and his family fled a dangerous mob.

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With those votes, Americans saw two of the most strident voices against anti-democratic governance in Venezuela, Cuba and other parts of Latin America reaffirm the actions of a president who has mirrored pages from the playbook of autocratic governments — both from the left and the right.

Generations of Latin Americans have paid the price of wrenching political, social and economic upheaval as a result of anti-democratic presidents, oftentimes sanctioned by the U.S. Currently, it’s one of the reason so many migrant families leave Central America. Historically, these autocrats, referred to as caudillos (strongmen, although some are women) have disregarded the rule of law, questioned fair election results and flouted the orderly transfer of power.

In his time in office, Trump opened the door to white supremacists and nationalists in the White House, spread misinformation and conspiracy theories and lied repeatedly. He declared journalists to be “enemies of the people,” tried to bend laws and institutions and saw the government as part of his political campaign, such as using the White House for the national convention.

Senators Cruz and Rubio are “reaffirming that they are not on the side of democracy,” said César Martínez-Gomariz, a political consultant who has worked on several Republican presidential campaigns.

“I don’t know if they can look in the faces of their fathers and say, ‘Hey guess what? You ran out on a dictator. I come here and I’m supporting a guy who wants to become one,’” he said.

Apart from the riot, one of Trump’s most damaging, anti-democratic legacies was refusing to accept Biden’s legitimate win — and the fact many Republicans didn’t push back.

Former congressman Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican and son of Cuban exiles, said that had he been in Congress, he wouldn’t have voted to dispute Biden’s Electoral College vote wins, as seven Latino House Republicans did.

“At the end of the day, the decision was whether to enhance the lie that the election was stolen and sow doubts about certified election results or to accept the results,” said Curbelo, an NBC News analyst.

On Jan. 8, Trump tweeted he would not attend Biden’s inauguration. New York University liberal studies professor Patricio Navia later tweeted:“Just like Cristina Fernandez in 2015. Donald Trump is the first Latin American President in the U.S.”

The reference was to Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina’s former president and now its vice president, who refused to attend her successor’s inauguration in 2015. Perpetrating what is known as the Big Lie, Trump has still not conceded he lost the November election.

“Donald Trump behaves as a typical Latin American authoritarian figure and it seems that some Latino legislators in the U.S. are fine with that, provided the ideologies and policies that Trump defends are associated with free markets,” said Navia, who also is a politics professor at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile. “It’s not that they don’t like dictators, It’s that they don’t like left-wing dictators.”

Navia said Rubio’s and Cruz’s acquittal of Trump in the context of their opposition to anti-democratic socialist and communist governments reminds him of the quip often attributed to Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”

After the Jan. 6 riot, Latino families who fled countries with anti-democratic and turbulent politics looked on in disbelief and dread.

“I had always been raised to believe that somehow this country was different,” said filmmaker Cristina Constantini, 32, “that a mob of angry and violent supporters of a tyrannical leader couldn’t just force their way into our Capitol building.”

The images of the deadly riot brought Constantini’s father to tears, she said; he was brought to the U.S. as a child fleeing Argentina’s military dictatorship. “I think it was like a sense of mourning for something that he thought couldn’t ever break in a way things are broken in other countries,” Constantini said.

Only two Latino Republicans in the House of Representatives, Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio broke ranks with fellow Latino Republicans in the House and voted to impeach Trump.

Gonzalez, whose father fled Cuba, decided to vote for impeachment after he spoke with law enforcement officers and reviewed video of the riot. Gonzalez accused Trump of abandoning his responsibility while members asked for help.

There certainly are Latinos who support Trump and cheer his acquittal. But Rubio and Cruz’s defense and that of other Latino lawmakers who stood with him creates a new backdrop that diminishes their denouncements of threats that presidents in other countries pose to democratic processes, in light of their unwavering fidelity to Trump.

“I think the next time Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz go out there and say—you shouldn’t be stopping the votes of the democratic process’ they are going to go, ‘Hey, senators, Mr. Rubio or Mr. Cruz, get on the plane and go back. Look at your mess,” Martínez-Gomaris said.

Trump’s acquittal opens the door to him running again. Like Evo Morales of Bolivia, Trump will continue to run the party, Navia said. “He doesn’t need to be the president to be the man running the show,” he said.

Prior to the impeachment vote, Rubio had said the impeachment trial was bad for the country and it was important to move on. But it won’t be easy in a country that Trump has left much more polarized, with polls showing many Republicans still disbelieving Biden’s win.

“They modified their principles because it was convenient,” Navia said. “The problem is sometimes you go too far and it’s difficult to come back — they can no longer turn against Trump because they are so central, so part of what Trump has done, that they are going to pay the price anyway.”

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