Saying “America’s approach to Cuba is at a crossroads,” Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton called for an end to the 53-year-old Cuban trade embargo in Miami on Friday.
The former secretary of state’s chosen location of Florida International University was significant for two reasons: Clinton delivered the message in the heart of the Cuban exile community, which is divided over the issue, and did it at a college campus, where the crowd tilted younger and, according to polls, more likely to support lifting the controversial measure.
Her position would have elicited public outcry in the Miami of a not-so-distant past. But times have changed: Protests against Clinton were contained to a handful of people, many of them with the local Republican Party, outside the auditorium.
In her remarks, Clinton said her campaign is about bringing prosperity to the U.S. — but also to the citizens of Cuba, and “for the young entrepreneur in Little Havana, who dreams of expanding to old Havana.”
Though only Congress can lift the embargo, Clinton promised, if elected, to act on Cuba even if Congress doesn’t, by using her executive authority to loosen travel and other economic restrictions, including on telecommunications.
The invitation-only crowd of more than 200 greeted Clinton with a standing ovation, and gave her another as she wrapped up her roughly 30-minute speech.
Clinton’s call for Congress to end the embargo comes about a month after President Barack Obama did the same. But even with the current warming of relations between Washington and Havana, human-rights violations continue on the communist island.
Republicans were quick to attack Clinton’s position as further enabling the Castro regime — even before the speech began. Minutes before the start, former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush took to Twitter: “It’s insulting to many Miami residents for Hillary to come here to endorse a retreat in Cuba’s struggle for democracy.”
Cuban-American presidential candidate Marco Rubio tweeted a photo of Clinton accepting a red button from Vladimir Putin — only Putin had Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s face PhotoShopped on it instead. “After Clinton’s failed ‘reset’ with Putin, now she wants to do a ‘reset’ with Castro,” Rubio posted. “She is making another mistake.”
In her speech, Clinton said “engagement is not a silver bullet, but again and again we see that it is more likely to hasten change, not hold it back.”
She also noted that a member of the Ladies in White, a Cuban dissident group, was in attendance at her event.
Clinton said her feelings on the embargo have evolved since the 1990s, when former President Bill Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act, which further strengthened the Cuban embargo.
She told the FIU crowd that her former support for the embargo was influenced by the Cuban government’s shooting down of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft over the Florida Straits in 1996. Cuba’s act of aggression, which killed four, led to Congress passing the Helms-Burton Act.
Regarding her new anti-embargo stance, Clinton said “I did not come to this position lightly; I well remember what happened to previous attempts at engagement in the 1990s.”
But today, Clinton said the embargo has become “an albatross around our necks” when it comes to U.S.-Cuba policy. And it wasn’t working, she said.
“The Castros were able to blame all of the island’s woes on the U.S. embargo… and delaying their day of reckoning with the Cuban people,” she added.
Clinton said the Obama administration’s loosening of travel restrictions helped convince her it is time for a change in course.
“I remember seeing a CNN report that summer about a Cuban father living and working in the United States who hadn’t seen his baby boy,” she said. “Our reforms made it possible for that father and son to finally reunite.”
“It felt like the start of something important,” she said.
The Democratic-leaning crowd, many of them Cuban-Americans, responded with enthusiasm.
Susy Ribero-Ayala, a criminal defense attorney in Coral Gables, hasn’t been to Cuba since her great uncle — the last democratically elected president of the country — left the island.
Ribero-Ayala said she went from from “supporter” of Clinton to “major supporter” after her speech, touting her mention of the need for human-rights action in Cuba and the ease for American travel to the island.
“It is going to move away from the regime, and they’re going to have no choice but to adapt to the changes,” Ribero-Ayala said.
On a patch of grass across from the auditorium, about 40 protesters came to show just how much they disagree with Clinton’s call to lift the embargo. Students from FIU College Republicans and the Cuban Democratic Directorate stood outside the auditorium waving flags.
Rey Anthony, a political science and Cuban studies major at FIU called Clinton’s visit “a slap in the face.”
“To us it’s an insult that Hillary Clinton has come to the heart of our community at an institution that has opened its doors to so many exiles to ask us to remove sanctions,” Anthony said.
The third-generation Cuban American wants to one day be a professor, just like the man who taught his Florida Politics course at FIU last semester: Marco Rubio.