Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist has now done what would have been suicidal as a Republican and announced support for ending the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
"The embargo has done nothing in more than fifty years to change the regime in Cuba,'' Crist said Friday night in a statement, after announcing his support for the shift in policy on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher show. The former governor was finishing up a week of appearances on the left-leaning talk show circuit to promote his new book.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott pounced on Crist’s latest Cuba remarks.
“The suggestion that Cuban Americans need to be 'stood up to' is insulting,” said Scott in a statement released Saturday afternoon. “Our Cuban community needs to be stood up FOR.”
“Our nation is great because we were built on a foundation of freedom and democracy,” Scott said. “That is not true in Cuba and we should not pretend it is. The importance of maintaining the embargo is that it stands for the Cuban people's right to be free.”
Supporters of the 52-year-old embargo have long argued it gives the United States leverage and should not be removed until democracy returns to the island. Opponents argue that with the Castros still in control of the country, the communist regime has used the embargo as an excuse to continue its abusive human rights record and oppressive economic policies.
Florida's governor has no authority to lift or modify the embargo, which would take an act of Congress, but he can influence public opinion and the issue is considered a political litmus test for many hardline Castro opponents.
As the Republican governor from 2007-2011, Crist backed U.S. sanctions against Cuba and signed a state law hiking costs on agencies that book trips to the repressive regime.
“I think the current policy in place is responsible,'” said Crist on June 14, 2010, on a visit to Miami Beach. “I do support the embargo.”
Maher asked Crist about the Cuban vote and said "I don't see a lot of politicians from Florida having the courage to stand up to that small Cuban community."
Crist responded: "Well, I think they need to. The embargo's been going on what, 50-years now, and I don't think it worked. It is obvious to me we need to move forward and get the embargo taken away,'' he said to applause.
"From a selfish point of view, as a Floridian, I'd like to see that happen because a lot of construction would be required on the island and South Florida could be the launching pad for all of that and really create a lot of jobs," he said.
That's the kind of talk that traditionally gets Florida politicians in hot water, especially in Miami -- where anti-Castro sentiments run deep and the stories of human rights abuses in the communist nation sting like an open wound.
While polling on Cuba and the embargo among Florida voters is scarce, a Florida International University survey after the 2008 elections found that 55 percent of Florida Cuban-Americans wanted the embargo lifted.
Yet a 2011 FIU survey found the opposite was true when it came to Miami-Dade Cuban-Americans, 56 percent of whom favored keeping the embargo. That survey heavily sampled Republicans, however, who are less likely to vote for the Democrat anyway.
After the show, Crist sent out a statement, elaborating: "If we want to bring democracy to Cuba, we need to encourage American values and investment there, not block ourselves out and cede influence to China,'' he said. "It will take time, and we must do it in a way where American investment helps people, not the dictatorship. But the reality is that no state's economy is hurt more by America's Cuba policies than Florida.
"Changing these policies to allow Florida's' farmers, manufacturers, and construction industry to sell goods and services in Cuba would boost Florida's economy and help businesses create more jobs in our state."
Crist is not alone in expressing these new-found sentiments. Palm Beach sugar barron Alfy Fanjul, whose family fled Cuba a generation ago, made national news last week when he announced that he also believes the time has come to ease relations with his former country. Fanjul, who was a supporter of former President Bill Clinton, has quietly started visiting the island and meeting with top Cuban officials to explore investment options there.
“If there is some way the family flag could be taken back to Cuba, then I am happy to do that,” he told the Washington Post in a rare interview.
Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Democrat, last year came out in favor of ending the 52-year-old embargo. Crist rival, former state Sen. Nan Rich, who is also a candidate for governor, has also endorsed the change in policy.
U.S.-Cuba relations have been at their loosest in almost two decades after President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to the island with an executive order in January 2009.
The country announced last month that is has started land-based oil exploration and is in talks with several companies about developing the resource as an export.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham visited the island to discuss the oil exploration plans in January and, upon his return, told El Nuevo Herald that one exemption to the embargo that he might endorse was a change to the restriction that requires that offshore drilling platforms working in Cuba have no more than 10 percent of U.S. components.
Graham said the embargo’s 10 percent limit “raises the question of an exemption of the standards of the embargo … an exemption to use others rigs,” adding that was only an option worth considering. It was Graham's first trip to Cuba.
No Florida governor in recent history has been in support of lifting the embargo. When Crist was governor, and his predecessors, each supported the policy as sound doctrine. Former Lieutenant Gov. Buddy MacKay, a Democrat and former Florida congressman, has long believed the embargo is an ineffective policy but, when MacKay was in office, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles disagreed and Chiles remained an advocate of it throughout his term.
For the last four years Cuba has imprisoned Alan Gross, a State Department contractor, for distributing satellite phone equipment to Jewish organizations on the island. Supporters of the embargo say the U.S. should not open discussions until Gross is released, at a minimum, and democracy is restored.