TAMPA — Charlie Crist has set off a volatile, ground-breaking issue in the Florida governor’s race by advocating lifting the Cuba trade embargo — a sharp reversal of the position the former Republican took as recently as 2010.
It is a step even many of his fellow Democrats say is premature, and one Republicans likely will use to accuse Crist of flip-flopping in campaigning among Florida’s Cuban-Americans.
But Crist says popular opinion, even among Cuban-Americans, is shifting.
“Here’s the issue – time. T-I-M-E,” Crist said in an interview with the Tribune. “You put a policy in and you see if it has the opportunity to work. Certainly after 50 years, you might come to the conclusion it’s not working.”
As far as several experts and activists on the Cuba issue can remember, Crist would be the first major-party candidate for statewide office in Florida to oppose the embargo.
He did so just as a new poll came out that seems to back his contention that public sentiment is shifting against the embargo. The Atlantic Council poll said lifting the embargo is favored by 56 percent of adults nationwide; 63 percent of Floridians; 62 percent of Latinos; 64 percent of Miami-Dade County adults; and 52 percent of Republicans.
Still, it goes beyond the stance of Crist’s political patron in his switch to the Democratic Party, President Barack Obama, not to mention Florida party leaders including Sen. Bill Nelson, Pinellas County Democratic congressional candidate Alex Sink; Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who’s national Democratic Party chairman; and Democratic statesman Bob Graham.
Nelson and other Democrats have backed expanded travel to Cuba and allowing Cuban Americans to send money to families on the island. But asked about Crist’s move, Nelson told a student group in Gainesville last week, “It’s not the time to unilaterally go in and lift the embargo until we see some ironclad guarantees that freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly is being allowed by the police state that is still run by the Castro brothers.”
Sink told the editorial board of The Tampa Tribune recently, “For right now at this moment in time … I’d need to think about the human rights violations and the Alan Gross situation before I would advocate at this moment in time to totally lift the embargo.”
Gross is a U.S. aid contractor arrested and now imprisoned in Cuba for helping set up wireless internet networks for Jewish communities.
Running for governor in 2006, Crist ran ads blasting his Democratic opponent, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, just for visiting Cuba, even though Davis had voted for and argued for maintaining the embargo. Running for the U.S. Senate as a no-party candidate in 2010, Crist agreed with his opponents, Democrat Kendrick Meek and Republican Marco Rubio, on maintaining the embargo.
His position changed when he answered a question from talk show host Bill Maher on Feb. 7, saying the embargo hasn’t worked. He said increased trade would bring prosperity to Florida and would help bring democracy to Cuba. He agreed with Maher’s comment that Florida politicians need to “stand up to that small Cuban community” that supports the embargo.
The state GOP shot back immediately, posting the video of Nelson’s comments and releasing a statement by Gov. Rick Scott saying Crist’s “suggestion that Cuban Americans need to be ‘stood up to’ is insulting. Our Cuban community needs to be stood up FOR. ... The importance of maintaining the embargo is that it stands for the Cuban people’s right to be free.”
The governor of Florida has no role in imposing or enforcing the embargo but the office could influence political positions on the measure, said Patrick Manteiga, a Democratic Party activist, publisher of Tampa’s weekly La Gaceta newspaper and a long-time advocate of expanded Cuba relations.
A governor who favors lifting the embargo “is what we’ve been waiting for,” Manteiga said. “If a governor is elected in Florida who says we should end the embargo, I really don’t know why we’d keep it. If you’re a presidential candidate, you could say, I don’t need that position to win Florida any more.”
Political backing for the embargo is centered in South Florida’s Cuban-American community, made up heavily of refugees who left the island when Fidel Castro took over in 1959 and their descendants.
But that sentiment has been eroding for years, said Miami pollster Fernand Amandi.
“More and more, the Cuban electorate and community is changing,” he said. “With the passing of the historic exiles and the second and third generation emerging, it contributes to more and more support for lifting the embargo.”
For younger Cuban-Americans, “It’s not as visceral and urgent an issue,” he said. “They’ve not had to endure the harsh circumstances of being forced to leave their country.”
Amandi said surveys by his firm, headed by veteran pollster Sergio Bendixen, shows lower numbers just among Cuban-Americans — “not two-thirds, maybe about half,” he said.
Despite the unprecedented nature of Crist’s stance, Amandi said, “I don’t believe it will have any impact – I don’t think he’ll gain voters who wouldn’t have voted for him, or lose any that would have.”
Nonetheless, some anti-Castro hardliners acknowledge there’s been a change.
“That is a concern. My wife is tired of it,” said Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer long active in the anti-Castro movement.
But he likens the issue to other evils in history which he said people should “never forget,” including the brutality that fueled the civil rights movement — even the Holocaust or the Inquisition.
As Americans seem more willing to overlook the authoritarian nature of the Cuban regime, anti-Castro hardliners are shifting their argument to a financial one — Cuba, they say, wants access to American credit, and has history of not paying debts.
“What I and many Cuban-Americans, and I think the American people as a whole do not want, is to extend credit to a nation that has failed to pay 31 other countries under the Castro regime,” Fernandez said.
Cuba defaulted on international debt in 1980, and recently has been reaching settlements with creditors going back decades, including an agreement with Russia to write off 90 percent of $32 billion in Soviet-era debt — a figure inflated by over-valued rubles, Cubans argue.