WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said the Cuban embargo must be lifted in an address made Friday from Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community.
The speech was rife with symbolism. Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, signed the embargo into law in 1996 as he faced re-election. Clinton made the Friday speech from Florida International University, where Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is vying for the Republican presidential nomination, has served as an adjunct professor. Rubio opposes an end to the embargo, as does his one of his main primary opponents, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), whose campaign headquarters are based in Miami.
"America's approach to Cuba is at a crossroads," Clinton noted as she traced a gradual normalizing of relations with the country that began in 2009, when President Barack Obama made it easier for Cubans to visit and send money to their relatives on the island. Though Obama's administration began to restore diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba starting in December and dropped it from its list of state sponsors of terror this year, only Congress can vote to end the restrictions and sanctions that make up the embargo.
"We must decide between engagement and embargo, between embracing fresh thinking and returning to Cold War deadlock," Clinton continued. "And the choices we make will have lasting consequences, not just for 11 million Cubans but also for American leadership across our hemisphere and around the world."
Polling has shown that a majority of Americans support ending the embargo. A poll of Cuban-Americans conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International in March found 51 percent favored normalizing relations with the island.
Clinton reminded her audience that she had called to end the embargo as her term as secretary of state wrapped up because she "became convinced" that encouraging ties between Cubans and Americans would promote economic and political change on the island. She called the embargo "a failed policy" that hadn't yielded the fruit its supporters expected and argued that isolating Cuba had strengthened, rather than weakened, the Castro family's grip on power.
However, "engagement is not a silver bullet," Clinton said, and an end to the embargo shouldn't mean the United States government should automatically trust Cuba's communist regime. She acknowledged critics who note that American engagement with authoritarian governments in other countries hasn't always produced internal change.
"Yes, it is true that political change will not come quickly or easily to Cuba," she said, arguing that former President Fidel Castro and current President Raul Castro were able to blame economic struggles on the embargo to distract from their own leadership failures. "We were unintentionally helping them keep [Cuba] a closed society rather than opening it up to positive external influences."
In a pre-rebuttal to Clinton's speech, Bush criticized her for promoting "a false narrative" that the embargo is a relic of the Cold War rather than a necessary tactic to encourage the Cuban government to abide by democratic values.
"It’s insulting to many residents of Miami for Hillary Clinton to come here to endorse a retreat in the struggle for democracy in Cuba," the Republican candidate said in a statement. "This city has become a home and a refuge to thousands and thousands of Castro’s victims. Secretary Clinton’s call to abandon the embargo – and the principles of democracy and freedom for the Cuban people – in exchange for nothing in return from the regime in Havana adds insult to the pain they and their families feel."
Bush added that if he is elected president he would help Cubans pursue a more democratic system.
"The American people deserve principled leaders who will stand up to our adversaries and stand up for our values," he said. "Secretary Clinton’s politically expedient embrace of President Obama’s unilateral concessions to Cuba makes clear she will do neither."