Clinton calls for end to Cuba embargo
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba on Friday, setting up a clear contrast with her Republican rivals on an important issue that divides Florida.
“The Cuba embargo needs to go once and for all,” the former secretary of state declared during a speech at Florida International University.
“Engagement is not a gift to the Castros,” Clinton said, referring to Fidel and Raul Castro, the former and current leaders of Cuba. “It is a threat to the Castros.”
“Lifting the embargo doesn’t set back the advance of freedom,” she asserted, “it advances freedom where it is most desperately needed.”
The Democratic frontrunner is taking a political risk, gambling that most voters in Florida and elsewhere have lost patience with an embargo policy that has failed to transform the Cuban government or prompt reforms after more than 50 years.
The speech reflected Clinton’s shifting views on Cuba since her 2008 campaign, when she took more of a hardline approach than Barack Obama, her Democratic rival at the time. On Friday, she fully backed President Obama’s policy of establishing closer ties to Cuba and using them to encourage political and economic reforms.
“I’ve been skeptical too,” she acknowledged, adding that, “Anyone who thinks we can trust this (Castro) regime hasn’t learned the lessons of history.”
“But as secretary of state, it became clear to me that our policy of isolating Cuba was strengthening the Castros’ grip on power rather than weakening it and harming our broader efforts to restore American leadership across the hemisphere. The Castros were able to blame all of the island’s woes on the U.S. embargo, distracting from the regime’s failures and delaying their day of reckoning with the Cuban people.”
She argued that economic engagement would be a boon for the Cuban people and for Americans, especially Cuban-Americans.
Florida businesses, including major cruiselines, are eager to take advantage once Congress agrees to remove restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba.
“With the lifting of the embargo, were that to occur, it’s pretty apparent the cruise industry is looking to move quickly and would begin Cuban travel operations,” said Robert Kritzman of Miami, former general counsel for the Norwegian Cruise Line. “It would be something new and unique to passengers, especially those who already have seen spots in the Caribbean.”
Hundreds of thousands of Americans already are traveling to Cuba under Obama’s new rules, which allow Cuban-Americans unlimited visits to see family members and others to take tours for educational, religious or cultural reasons.
The embargo still restricts pleasure trips and most forms of trade, and it can only be removed by act of Congress.
“We should help more Americans go to Cuba,” Clinton said on Friday, prompting cheers from her FIU audience. “If Congress won’t act to do this, I will use executive authority to make it easier for more Americans to visit the island to support private business and engage with the Cuban people.”
A nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center in July found that 72 percent of respondents want to end the embargo. Support also has eroded in Florida, even among Cuban-Americans who in past decades overwhelmingly favored economic sanctions as a way to squeeze the Castro regime. An FIU poll last year of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County found that 52 percent were ready to end the embargo.
But many voters, especially older Cuban exiles, want to retain it as long as Cuba is controlled by the Castro regime.
Clinton’s position puts her in conflict with them and with most Republican presidential candidates, especially U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a leading opponent of Obama’s outreach.
“Unilateral concessions to the Castros will only strengthen a brutal, anti-American regime 90 miles from our shore,” Rubio said before Clinton’s speech. “President Obama and Secretary Clinton must learn that appeasement only emboldens dictators and repressive governments, and weakens America’s global standing in the 21st century.”
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a presidential candidate, has made clear he wants to undo and reverse the Obama policy. “I would argue that instead of lifting the embargo we should consider strengthening it again to put pressure on the Cuban regime,” Bush told the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, a pro-embargo advocacy group, during a speech in December in Coral Gables.
Clinton did not mention the Cuban Adjustment Act, a controversial law that allows Cubans to remain in this country once they set foot on U.S. soil.
A Sun-Sentinel investigation published in January found that Cuban criminals are using the law to travel freely between Florida and the island, ripping off Medicare and other victims and funneling ill-gotten gains back to Cuba.
U.S. police agencies have long been frustrated by their inability to retrieve fugitives holed up in Cuba.
U.S. diplomats say normal relations with Cuba will allow the United States to press its demands on fugitives and many matters, including human rights and the release of political prisoners.
Clinton asserted that point on Friday, saying she would continue to press for a just settlement of claims on property confiscated by the Cuban government.
Many in Congress already are moving to end or ease the embargo. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bill in July to lift travel restrictions. And in the House, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, introduced a bill this week to remove the embargo.
Congress-watchers say these attempts are gaining momentum but are unlikely this year to overcome resistance from a determined minority of embargo supporters, including Republican leaders, Rubio and other Florida Cuban-Americans in Congress.
“On that, there doesn’t seem to be any movement,” said Philip Brenner, an expert on Cuba at American University in Washington. But growing public pressure to end the embargo will have an impact, he said.
“Eventually, Congress is going to give in,” Brenner predicted. “It’s like hanging on to a sinking ship.”
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