As governor of Arkansas five years ago, Mike Huckabee joined a bipartisan chorus of politicians who concluded that the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba was bad for businesses. Now that he’s a top-tier candidate for president, Huckabee has decided he favors the embargo -- so much so that he vowed Monday to outdo even President Bush in strangling the regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro and punishing those who do business there.
It was a change of heart sure to please hard-liners among the Cuban exiles who could make up 10% or more of the electorate in Florida’s crucial Jan. 29 Republican primary. But it also reflected the latest move by a once-obscure candidate now grappling with how to transform a burst of momentum into a sustainable bid for the White House.
Huckabee’s Cuba flip-flop comes just days after he released a new, hard-line plan on illegal immigration described as “radical” by some of the same immigrant-rights advocates who once lauded him for more liberal views. As governor, Huckabee supported in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants and stood up for illegal workers caught in a raid of a meatpacking plant. Now he wants all illegal immigrants to return to their native countries within 120 days.
Huckabee all but acknowledged the political expediency of his shifting views as he stood Monday in a Cuban restaurant in Miami and explained why he wrote a letter to Bush in 2002 describing how the Cuba trade embargo was hurting Arkansas rice growers.
“Rather than seeing it as some huge change, I would call it, rather, the simple reality that I’m running for president of the United States, not for reelection as governor of Arkansas,” he said. “I’ve got to look at this as an issue that touches the whole country.”
Huckabee has rocketed to the front of the GOP pack by emphasizing his roots as a plain-spoken Southern Baptist preacher with staunchly conservative views. A CNN survey released Monday puts him in a statistical tie nationally with GOP front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani.
But Huckabee’s evolving views on certain issues are giving his rivals for the Republican nomination ammunition as they try to halt his rise.
On Monday in Miami, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee criticized Huckabee for changing his stance on Cuba “on a dime to appeal to a particular group of people right before an election,” according to the Associated Press.
The night before -- when the GOP candidates jockeyed to appear toughest on Castro during a debate on the Spanish-language network Univision -- Thompson’s campaign gave reporters quotes from Huckabee’s 2002 letter. Thompson had hoped to win support from the social conservatives flocking to Huckabee.
Huckabee on Monday won an endorsement from Marco Rubio, Florida’s Cuban American state House speaker, handing the upstart candidate instant cachet in a community that some of his rivals have been courting for years. He said his decision was based largely on Huckabee’s new views on Cuba.
Rubio, who has been wooed by all the major GOP candidates, said he decided to back Huckabee after searching for “someone that will fight for what they truly believe in the depths of their heart.”
The letter Huckabee wrote in 2002 reportedly argued that the embargo “continues to harm our own agricultural and business interests here at home and has certainly not helped the people of Cuba.”
His views on Monday were equally firm in the opposite direction, as he vowed, if elected president, to veto any effort to end the sanctions.
Huckabee pledged to adhere to provisions of a 1996 law that would permit U.S. citizens to sue in American courts for property taken from them during the 1959 Cuban revolution.
Those lawsuits could threaten European businesses with holdings on the island. Bush and President Clinton have routinely avoided conflict on the issue by suspending those provisions of the 1996 law.
“I really wasn’t that aware of a lot of the issues that exist between Cuba and the United States,” Huckabee said Monday, adding that his flexibility on policy should be viewed as a good thing.
“I’ll be the first to tell you I’m always subject -- and I hope we all are -- to learning, to growing, and never being so stubborn and maybe bull-headed,” he said.
Huckabee appears to be applying that same approach to his views on immigration, another issue that is important to conservative voters in early GOP contests and an area where he is being attacked by his opponents.
Like former New York Mayor Giuliani, Huckabee has long been viewed with admiration among advocates for immigrants. He supported legislation two years ago in Arkansas that would have given in-state tuition to certain children of illegal immigrants.
And two years ago he reacted with outrage after federal agents raided an Arkadelphia, Ark., poultry plant and arrested and deported many Mexican workers. Huckabee was incensed that federal authorities had separated many parents from their children, and he called for a White House investigation.
“Our first priority should be to secure our borders. I’m less threatened by people who cross the line to make beds, pick tomatoes, or pluck chickens as I am by people like those in Canada making 3-ton bombs,” he said in an e-mail to The Times last year. “While we should certainly enforce the law, we need to prioritize.” He called in the e-mail for a “process that avoids amnesty, but does provide a path for workers to become legal by paying a fine, getting in the back of the line to register.”
But Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights group, said he was stunned last week when Huckabee released a new plan calling for all illegal workers to register with federal authorities and return to their native countries within 120 days.
Those who did would face no penalty under Huckabee’s plan if they later applied to immigrate to or visit the United States. Those who did not return home would be barred, when caught, from future reentry to the United States for 10 years.
“To me, it’s like night and day,” Sharry said. “One day he’s saying children of [illegal] immigrants should go to college, and the next day he’s saying there should be mass expulsion.”
Huckabee on Monday said his anger over the Arkadelphia raid stemmed from the fact that local authorities were not told in advance so they could make preparations for the children who were left alone when their parents were arrested and deported. Often, illegal workers have children who were born on U.S. soil and are therefore citizens.
He said raiding a business employing “vast amounts” of illegal workers was a “legitimate thing to do” as long as local officials knew in advance.