Fabiola Santiago: Trump calls his foes ‘vermin’ and evokes another tyrant: To Fidel Castro, we were worms

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MIAMI — Two days after his vulgar Hialeah, Florida, rally, an equally pumped ex-President Donald Trump railed against his political opponents in New Hampshire on Veterans Day.

He called his political opponents on the left “vermin,” a word that echoed fascist Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany for millions of Americans, especially for World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors and Jewish families under the growing threat of antisemitism.

But to me, and many of the 2 million Cuban exiles scattered around the United States, when Trump said his foes “live like vermin within the confines of our country,” he evoked another sinister character: Fidel Castro.

I remember all that my family endured in Cuba during the years he was consolidating his regime, not as a running film of memories, but in scenes of intense clarity because they were frightening, alienating and cruel.

If there’s anything that stands out in my childhood in Cuba, it’s being labeled a gusana — worm in my neighborhood, and most ferociously, in school — after it became known that my parents were leaving the country, and my father was sent to labor in the agriculture fields as punishment.

After being labeled by Castro, I lost my school honors and my well-earned first place position on the honor roll — replaced by a boy with lower grades, but who was a compliant Communist Youth member, a pionero.

That the mayor of Hialeah, Esteban Bovo, is asking the council to name a street after criminally charged Trump in the city where I went to school in exile — graduating at the top of my class from high school a short seven years after our arrival in what Castro derisively called “Yankee Paradise” — is a dishonor to our history.

Dehumanizing rhetoric

Tyrants — and would-be tyrants like Trump, who carry within them the disposition to, as his campaign threatened Monday, see to it that critics are “crushed” — seem to prefer references to insects, invertebrates, to humiliate and dehumanize opponents.

Like Trump with vermin, Castro first used the term gusanos in a fiery 1961 speech in reference to counter-revolutionaries.

He spoke of “shaking the rotten tree, and the gusanos will drop out.”

The term later was used to denigrate Cubans who sought to flee the country during the short Camarioca boatlift of 1965 and on the ensuing Freedom Flights that brought 250,000 Cubans, including my family, to Miami through 1971.

And who doesn’t remember Castro demonizing Cubans fleeing on the Mariel boatlift as escoria– scum — slander that carried into early exile?

Trump’s use of “vermin” was no fluke.

He reiterated words that have a history related to genocide on his social media, once again lying about elections being stolen to justify his unprecedented attempts to undermine American democracy.

“In honor of our great Veterans on Veteran’s Day,” he wrote, “we pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Racists and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country, lie, steal, and cheat on Elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and the American Dream. . . . Despite the hatred and anger of the Radical Left Lunatics who want to destroy our country, we will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

He distorts reality and rouses fear as Castro did with the perennial nattering about a “Yankee invasion” to excuse the militarization of everything, including school curricula, and to stoke divisions that led families to become estranged from each other for political reasons.

Beware Trump 2.0

Trump 2.0 should be sounding alarm bells all over Miami-Dade, not winning converts.

His branding of Democrats as Communists and Marxists is only a campaign tool to divert attention from policy issues where Republicans lose support.

The far-left in this country has little, if any, political power — certainly not legs to win a national election. It’s the hard-right fueled by Trumpism that’s dangerously gaining acceptance when a major party, the GOP, overwhelmingly prefers him in polls to far better candidates.

Such support emboldens Trump in the same way Castro was bolstered when more than 90% of the population rallied with him against power-usurper Fulgencio Batista — only to begin an exodus of detractors fearing for their lives and their future that continues to this day.

Castro didn’t follow Karl Marx’s playbook to establish a Communist state for all. He followed Hitler and Francisco Franco in Spain. Castro used communism to gain allies and enable what Trump wants the United States to be: his personal fiefdom. Nothing short of idolatry will do.

Dehumanizing a sector of the Cuban population as undesirable animals made it easier for Castro to execute them as it did Hitler to exterminate 6 million Jews. And Castro got rid of opponents with the support of the people who chanted “paredón,paredón,” calling for the heads of batistianos they hated.

It’s frightening to think that it didn’t take much for Trump in Hialeah — home to old and new Cuban exiles — to get people chanting repeatedly to his rage against President Biden: “F— him up!” And to applaud Trump’s threat to round up immigrants into giant detention camps and deport them.

Castro, too, used immigration for political purposes, castigating or rewarding people with permission to leave as it benefited his agenda.

His loss was Miami’s gain, or so, we’ve told ourselves.

Of all people, Cuban Americans should see Trump for what he is — dangerous.

Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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