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Colombian Officials' Role In The U.S. Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

By now we have heard a lot about foreign election interference in the United States. If your mind is immediately going to Russia and Russian troll farms, yes, there is that. We're going to talk now, though, about another country that may be trying to get in on the U.S. election - Colombia. Conservative elected officials there are openly calling Joe Biden a socialist bent on creating a socialist regime a la Cuba or Venezuela, and this appears to be part of an effort to scare Latino voters in Florida. That is what Tim Padgett is reporting. He covers the Americas from member station WLRN in Miami, and he joins us now. Hey there, Tim.

TIM PADGETT, BYLINE: Hi. How are you?

KELLY: I'm all right. Thank you. I am trying to get my head around this. What exactly have you been able to document is happening here?

PADGETT: Well, we're seeing a growing number of Colombian elected officials, mostly from a very far-right party in Colombia but which is essentially the ruling party, getting involved in ways we've never really seen from a Latin American government before here in a U.S. election. We're seeing social media involvement, social media videos being made that overtly campaign for President Trump. We're also seeing elected officials here, in particular one congressman who has a very sort of special portfolio. He represents Colombians abroad, and he has dual U.S.-Colombian citizenship. His name is Juan David Velez, and he splits his time between Miami and Bogota. He himself has been openly endorsing certain Republican candidates here as well as President Trump.

KELLY: And in terms of what exactly is being said about Biden, is it - what? - Joe Biden is a Bolshevik? What is the message that's being sent out?

PADGETT: That Biden and the Democrats are what these Colombian elected officials call Castrochavistas, referring both to the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the late socialist strongman in Venezuela Hugo Chavez; this warning that Biden and the Democrats would create a U.S. version of the radical left-wing socialist regimes that many Latin Americans here, particularly Venezuelans and Cubans, have fled.

KELLY: So who exactly is the target?

PADGETT: The Latino voter base in Florida, which - we're talking the Cuban American vote, the Venezuelan American vote and, in particular, the Colombian American vote. And we're talking about hundreds of thousands of registered voters here in the state, a state that is going to be won, as they often say, on the margins.

KELLY: You speak to that being on the margins. Florida, of course, is an absolutely crucial swing state. Joe Biden's been campaigning there in Miami today. Do we know if this campaign is registering? Are they succeeding at trying to persuade Latino voters that Joe Biden is a socialist?

PADGETT: I think so, especially since we've seen, for example, in Miami-Dade County - which has obviously the largest proportion of Latino voters - former Vice President Biden and President Trump running just about neck and neck in Miami-Dade County with Latino voters. And that's been a surprise to many, particularly since Hillary Clinton in 2016 handily won the Latino vote here. And so there really is evidence that this sort of red scare that they've been using with Latino voters here is having an effect in President Trump's favor.

KELLY: How does this compare to, say, what U.S. intelligence believes Russia tried to do in the 2016 election? How is it the same? How is it different?

PADGETT: I don't think it rises to that level by any means at this point, but it is surprising because the U.S. and Colombia have always had such a very strong, bipartisan relationship. And this has become a very disconcerting thing not just for for Democrats here but for a lot of Colombians back in Colombia who have been worried about the long-term effects that this kind of involvement or interference, if you want to call it, could have on that very healthy bipartisan relationship that Colombia and the U.S. have always had.

KELLY: Tim Padgett - he is Americas editor for member station WLRN in Miami. Tim Padgett, thank you.

PADGETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.