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Democrats' Florida push calls for US shift on Cuba

Monday - 7/7/2014, 1:44pm  ET

FILE -This May 21, 2014 file photo shows Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist campaigning in Orlando, Fla. Recently, campaigning in Miami's Little Havana, Crist stood before a crowd and said what few politicians have in decades of scrounging for votes in the Cuban-American neighborhood: end the trade embargo against Cuba. “If you really care about people on the island, we need to get rid of the embargo and let freedom reign,” he said, shouting above a small band of protesters who responded with chants of “Shame on you!” Crist’s supporters cheered louder. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

MICHAEL J. MISHAK
Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) -- When Charlie Crist went to Miami's Little Havana recently, the Democratic candidate for governor stood before a crowd and said what few politicians have in decades of scrounging for votes in the Cuban-American neighborhood: End the trade embargo against Cuba.

"If you really care about people on the island, we need to get rid of the embargo and let freedom reign," he said, shouting above a small band of protesters who responded with chants of "Shame on you!"

Crist's supporters cheered louder.

It was a scene inconceivable just a few years ago, when politicians were careful about what they said on the issue, for fear of alienating Cuban-American voters, many of whom fled Fidel Castro's Cuba in the 1960s.

But Democrats now sense an opening with newer Cuban arrivals and second-generation Cuban-Americans who favor resuming diplomatic relations with the communist island.

In a sign of just how much the climate has shifted, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, who backed trade limits when she ran for president in 2008, is now calling for the embargo to be lifted. She described it as "Castro's best friend" and said it hampers "our broader agenda across Latin America."

Her words mark the first time a leading presidential contender from either political party has suggested reversing the 52-year-old policy.

The efforts represent the largest challenge to Cuban-American orthodoxy in decades and could help reshape American foreign policy.

It also could alter the political landscape in the largest swing-voting state, where Republicans long have dominated the Cuban vote by taking a hard line on the embargo.

Crist's campaign will be the first statewide test of whether the trade restrictions are still a live wire for politicians in Florida, home to 70 percent of the nation's Cubans.

Crist is a former Republican governor who once said he would only visit Cuba "when it's free." Now that he's a Democrat and trying to regain his old job, he has floated the idea of going to Havana "to learn from the people of Cuba and help find opportunities for Florida businesses."

He argues that the embargo has failed because it has not toppled the Castro government but has hurt the Cuban people. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result," he told reporters at the opening of a campaign office in Little Havana.

Florida Republicans are outraged, casting Crist's position as a betrayal of the Cuban-American community.

"I'm going to stand with Cuban-Americans that believe in freedom, believe in democracy, believe in freedom of speech and oppose the oppression of Cuba," said GOP Gov. Rick Scott. Crist, he added, will "be standing with Castro."

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential GOP presidential candidate whose parents left Cuba in the 1950s, said the embargo is "the last tool we have remaining to ensure that democracy returns to Cuba one day."

Lifting the embargo, he said, would "further entrench the regime in power by giving them more money to carry out their violent repression of people's fundamental rights and dignity."

Nationwide, the share of Cuban registered voters who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party has doubled in the past decade, from 22 percent to 44 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Less than half of Cuban voters now affiliate with the Republican Party, down from 64 percent over the same time period.

President Barack Obama won Florida twice, campaigning on easing travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans who want to visit their families on the island and allowing them to send more money to their relatives. In 2012, he captured nearly half the Cuban-American vote, a record for a Democrat.

The shift is driven in part by changing demographics.

Cuban-Americans, once the dominant bloc of Florida's Hispanic vote, have seen their political clout diminished by a huge influx of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America, who lean Democratic. In the 2012 election, 42 percent of Hispanic voters in the state were Cuban, an 11 percentage point drop from 2000, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.

The exiles who arrived in the decade and a half following Cuba's 1959 revolution have been dying off while their children and fresh waves of immigrants hold a different view of Cuba. More than one-third of the Cubans residing in Miami-Dade County arrived after 1995, with many supporting travel and trade policies that strengthen ties between the U.S. and Cuba, said Guillermo Grenier, a lead researcher for the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

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