The Cuban embargo emerges as a political issue in Florida


and Amy Sherman

Florida Gov. Rick Scott took issue Monday with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist’s view that the U.S. embargo has outlived its usefulness, saying keeping it in place is “standing up” for the Cuban people.

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera was even more forceful in his rejection of Crist’s assertion last Friday on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher that the time has come to lift the embargo.

“Charlie Crist’s comments just show his ignorance on the issue of what is going on in Cuba. As a Cuban-American I was insulted by it. He should get a little smarter on what’s actually happening,’’ said Lopez-Cantera.

The politicians’ remarks come at a time when attitudes toward Cuba are evolving as more liberal travel policies by both the United States and Cuba increasing put Cubans on the island and those in Florida in more frequent contact with each other.

And even though a Florida governor has no authority to lift the embargo — that is an issue for the U.S. Congress — with Crist’s and Scott’s comments, the question of Cuba has emerged as a campaign issue.

Appearing at an event at a Lighthouse Point car dealership Monday, Scott and Lopez-Cantera wanted to talk up a Scott proposal to cut $500 million in fees — mostly by reducing charges for auto registration.

But during a press conference that followed, Cuba was front and center.

“America is built on freedom and democracy. Cuba is not free or Democratic. The embargo that’s in place is part of standing up for the Cuban individuals, Cuban families’ freedom,” Scott said. “So we need to continue the embargo.”

Asked if he thought the Cuban-American population in Florida still supports the embargo, Scott responded, “Absolutely.”

A new poll to be released by the Atlantic Council Tuesday may provide some clarity on the issue. The national poll examines attitudes toward U.S.-Cuba relations, including the embargo.

Crist — who in 2010, when he was governor, said he supported the embargo — now contends that lifting it could help the Florida economy, creating more jobs in the state and allowing Florida businesses to sell goods and services to an island that has been largely closed to most commerce with the United States for more than 50 years.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio characterized Crist’s new views on Cuba as just one more of the former governor’s mercurial positions.

“It’s just the latest in a series of flip-flops that he’s undertaken on public policy,” Rubio said Monday after a speech on higher education at Miami Dade College.

Crist, who is now running as a Democrat against Scott, lost the U.S. Senate race to Rubio in 2010 after leaving the Republican Party and running as an independent.

To lift the embargo would require congressional action. But the president can make certain adjustments such as increasing the categories of Americans allowed to visit the island as Barack Obama did in 2011.

Despite limited economic reform in Cuba, and recent talks between the two countries on migration issues and on the resumption of direct mail service, administration officials have said they want to see more from Cuba.

Among current obstacles to a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations are the continued imprisonment of U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross and Cuba’s human rights record.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, Monday called Cuba an “outlier in the Western Hemisphere with its lack of respect for these rights.

“We are deeply concerned about the recent increase in arbitrary detentions, physical violence, and other abusive actions carried out by the Cuban government against peaceful human and civil rights advocates,’’ she said.

Miami Herald Staff Writer David Smiley contributed to this report.

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