ST. PETERSBURG -- Charlie Crist minces no words describing the government of Cuba: “It’s oppressive. It’s anti-free-press. It’s totalitarian. It’s wrong.”
But the likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee wants to visit Florida’s communist neighbor this summer and says it’s past time to lift the United States’ 53-year-old Cuba trade embargo.
“The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. This policy has not worked,” Crist told the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald in an interview Friday, explaining for the first time the thinking behind his plans.
The controversial trip — panned by Republican Gov. Rick Scott as a public relations coup for the Castro regime — would be a first for such a high-profile Florida candidate, and it may not happen at all if the State Department or Cuban government reject the idea. The former Republican governor said he is optimistic after submitting his request to the State Department two weeks ago.
He said he’d like to visit the island with a delegation of business, academic and economic development officials. He wants to meet with as many “regular” citizens as possible to discuss infrastructure needs and the embargo.
Crist, 57, said he is not interested in meeting with government officials there, but would like to talk with political prisoners, including American Alan Gross, the U.S. government contractor imprisoned for allegedly attempting to undermine the communist government. Crist acknowledged, however, that the Cuban government would largely control his itinerary.
Crist said he drew a measure of inspiration from the experience of Palm Beach sugar baron Alfonso “Alfy” Fanjul, a Cuban exile and longtime leader of the anti-Castro movement who lately has talked of normalizing relations and ultimately expanding business interests into Cuba. A spokesman for the Fanjuls said they don’t support Crist’s campaign.
Some of it is also personal, Crist said, noting that his family immigrated to America from Cyprus and that he can’t visit his grandfather’s village there because it is in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus and off limits to people of Greek descent.
“There is an emotional attachment,” Crist said. “I can, to some degree, have great empathy for what some of our Cuban Floridians are feeling. And I’ve talked to a lot of them in South Florida.”
Late last year, during a three-day visit to Miami, Crist said he spoke with about two dozen Cuban Americans he met in the course of campaigning and traveling around the city. He asked them about the embargo.
“Twenty-four of the 25 told me, face to face, that they felt we should get rid of it,” Crist said.
Public opinion polls show a majority of Floridians, including Cuban Americans, support normalized relations with Cuba. But critics say Crist is naive if he thinks visiting the communist country will accomplish anything besides allowing Cuban leaders to exploit him for propaganda purposes.
“It’s foolish he’s going there. All he’s going to do is support the Castro regime,” Scott said earlier this week, while in Miami. “Look at how many people in this city were thrown in prison by Castro. . . . He is helping Venezuela become Cuba — Castro is doing that. Charlie Crist going there is going to help them.”
Crist said he has no intention of being used as a Castro regime puppet, but that a new approach to Cuba could help the Cuban people as well as the economy in Florida.
“If you were to lift the embargo and be able to have trade with the Cuban people, then the kinds of economic impact that would have — particularly on a state like Florida, which is the closest to it,” he said. “If there is going to be some infrastructure change, some housing modifications and improvements, the natural launching pad for all of that in Cuba is Florida.”
As a Republican candidate for governor in 2006, Crist used to talk the same way as Scott does now and he even attacked Democrat Jim Davis for having visited Cuba in 2003.
“As a Republican, it is expected and anticipated you’ll be for the embargo,” Crist explained. “And of course, back in the day I was trying to be a good team player and being a round peg trying to fit into a square hole, as awkward as that was for me many times.”
Crist said he did support the Obama administration’s decision to keep Cuba designated as a state-terror sponsor. But, he said that when it comes to trade and travel, he draws a distinction between Cuba and other terrorist nations like Syria, North Korea or Iran.
Crist was careful to repeat that he doesn’t want to help the Castro government, but instead learn first-hand what Cuba is like.
But whether it was a 2012 visit by Pope Benedict XVI or the 2013 trip by pop stars Jay-Z and Beyoncé, critics of the Castro regime say high-profile visitors ultimately help the government in Havana more than the people in the streets.
Before Benedict’s visit, for instance, Cuban officials cracked down on protesters and, during the pope’s visit, Vatican officials told reporters that his ability to meet with dissidents and protesters was limited by the government. But President Raúl Castro got a photo op with the church leader.
Asked how he would fare better than the pope, Crist invoked the recent visits of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and former Democratic Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham.
“There are examples of fellow Floridians who have been able to make the trip to Cuba,” Crist said. “And it’s increasing by the day. It’s amazing, really.
“And if you’re conscious of it, aware of it, then I think you can probably structure a visit in such a way that you don’t get utilized inappropriately and wrongfully appear to be embracing the current regime, which of course is exactly what I would not want to do.”