MIAMI (AP) — Florida’s shift to the right is perhaps nowhere more notable than in this vibrant swath of the state’s southeast coast where the latest Donald Trump drama is unfolding.
Republicans have made steady inroads in this former Democratic stronghold in recent years, culminating in the GOP carrying Miami-Dade County in last year’s midterm elections. The party’s broader future could now hinge on what happens in south Florida -– but for a very different reason.
Trump, the former president who is again the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination, will make his first appearance in federal court Tuesday in Miami, where he faces 37 felony counts related to charges of illegal retention of classified information.
The charges have propelled Miami into the center of a storyline that, until recently, was largely thought to be unfolding in a grand jury room in Washington. And it has brought to the forefront Trump’s rising popularity among Florida’s Latinos, some of whom have drawn comparisons between the former president’s prosecution and events abroad in which opposition leaders have been arrested or prosecuted in kangaroo courts — despite the U.S. tradition of respect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary.
“These are the sort of things that you see in the Caribbean and Latin America, where you have the party in power persecuting the opposition,” said Kevin Marino Cabrero, a Miami-Dade County commissioner who is friends with Trump and served as the Florida state director for his 2020 reelection campaign. “This community, what it sees is injustice being committed.”
Miami-Dade is the state’s most populous county and home to 1.5 million Latinos of voting age. Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the county over Trump by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016. But Trump made gains in 2020, getting the margin down to 9 percentage points against Democrat Joe Biden.
Last year, the county flipped, with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who built his brand as a MAGA politician lifted by Trump from relative obscurity, defeating his Democratic opponent by more than 11 points.
The shift was on display last week when, on the day his indictment was unsealed, Trump was playing golf with Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, whose district covers parts of Miami-Dade. In 2016, the Cuban-born congressman voted for Hillary Clinton, but he backed Trump in 2020, even supporting efforts to reject the results of the election in the hours after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
On Monday, Trump was to arrive at his golf resort in the Miami suburb of Doral, sometimes called “Doralzuela″ because of its large population of Venezuelans. They make up one of the groups where the GOP has seen dramatic gains.
“There is no equal justice for all,” said Ernesto Ackerman, a member of the Venezuelan-American Republican Club. “Trump has been persecuted for six years. They are looking for excuses to impeach him because they are terrified of him.”
As if to stir up that Miami base, Trump in North Carolina over the weekend reminded voters of his hardline stance against Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, contrasting it with the Biden administration’s efforts to ease sanctions on the socialist leader.
“When I left,Venezuela was ready to collapse, we would’ve taken it over and would’ve gotten all that oil,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Greensboro. “But now we’re buying oil from Venezuela, so we’re making a dictator very rich.”
Miami is also a hotbed for the far right, raising concerns that protests could get out of hand on Tuesday. At a news conference on the eve of Trump’s court appearance, Miami Police Chief Manuel Morales declined to get into the specifics of the security precautions but said he didn’t expect any problems.
On Monday, security guards and federal officers were stationed outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Federal Courthouse, a sleek, glass high-rise that’s lined by palm trees. More than a dozen media tents were set up outside to cover the historic case.
Alex Otaola, a Cuban-born YouTube personality who is running for Miami-Dade County mayor, is rallying his multitude of followers to show up to protest against Trump’s prosecution. Otaola is known for organizing pro-Trump caravans in Miami’s Little Havana and other neighborhoods.
“Those of us who believe that America’s salvation only comes if Donald Trump is elected for a second term, we will gather on Tuesday,” Otaola said in a YouTube clip.
Miami has seen its share of high-profile national security cases before – from the 1990s prosecution of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega to the trial of American al-Quaeda recruit Jose Padilla.
While Trump will make his initial appearance Tuesday in Miami, the case was filed in West Palm Beach, 70 miles to the north. It has been initially assigned there to Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who was criticized for rulings in his favor during a dispute last year over a special master assigned to review the seized classified documents.
There’s also the question of whether the fast-changing politics of South Florida could provide some tactical advantages to the former president’s defense. Palm Beach County also turned red in the recent midterm elections.
Former federal prosecutor David Weinstein said Trump may have been summoned for his first appearance in Miami because of the large media interest and larger federal law enforcement required to keep the proceedings safe.
Although Trump contests the notion that he is enjoying the attention a federal indictment is giving him, he often boasts about the love he receives from his followers.
Before last year’s midterm elections, Trump held a rally with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in Miami that was attended by thousands of supporters. They held aloft signs reading “Cubans for Trump,” “Nicaraguans for Trump” and “Venezuelans for Trump.”
After Trump referred to Hispanics as “great people,” the crowd cheered and began to chant, “We love you! We love you!”
“Oh, do I love you, too,” Trump said. “You have no idea how much.”