Charlie Crist flip-flops on U.S. embargo against Cuba

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist said he supports ending the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, a complete reversal from his position as the state’s former Republican governor and as an independent Senate candidate in 2010.

“The embargo has done nothing in more than fifty years to change the regime in Cuba,’’ Crist said Friday night in a statement after announcing his support for lifting the decades long policy on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Crist was on the left-leaning show as part of a series of appearances last week to promote his new book, “The Party’s Over: How The Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became A Democrat.”

As the Republican governor from 2007-2011, Crist backed U.S. sanctions against Cuba and signed a state law hiking costs on agencies that book trips to the repressive regime.

“I think the current policy in place is responsible,'” said Crist on June 14, 2010, on a visit to Miami Beach. “I do support the embargo.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott pounced on Crist’s latest Cuba remarks.

“Our nation is great because we were built on a foundation of freedom and democracy,” Scott said in a statement released Saturday afternoon. “That is not true in Cuba and we should not pretend it is. The importance of maintaining the embargo is that it stands for the Cuban people's right to be free.”

Supporters of the 52-year-old embargo have long argued it gives the United States leverage and should not be removed until democracy returns to the island. Opponents argue that with the Castro brothers still in control of the country, the communist regime has used the embargo as an excuse to continue its abusive human rights record and oppressive economic policies.

Florida’s governor has no authority to lift or modify the embargo, which would take an act of Congress, but he can influence public opinion and the issue is considered a political litmus test for many hardline Castro opponents.

The issue came up when Maher asked Crist about the Cuban vote, saying “I don’t see a lot of politicians from Florida having the courage to stand up to that small Cuban community.”

Crist responded: “Well, I think they need to. The embargo’s been going on what, fifty years now, and I don’t think it worked. It is obvious to me we need to move forward and get the embargo taken away.’’

“From a selfish point of view, as a Floridian, I’d like to see that happen because a lot of construction would be required on the island and South Florida could be the launching pad for all of that and really create a lot of jobs,” he said.

That kind of talk historically gets Florida politicians in trouble, especially in Miami — where anti-Castro sentiments run deep and reports of human rights abuses and repression of dissidents in the communist nation anger many Cuban voters.

After the show, Crist sent out a statement, elaborating on his remarks: “If we want to bring democracy to Cuba, we need to encourage American values and investment there, not block ourselves out and cede influence to China.

“It will take time, and we must do it in a way where American investment helps people, not the dictatorship. But the reality is that no state’s economy is hurt more by America’s Cuba policies than Florida.

“Changing these policies to allow Florida’s’ farmers, manufacturers, and construction industry to sell goods and services in Cuba would boost Florida’s economy and help businesses create more jobs in our state.”

Crist is not alone in expressing his rethinking on Cuba.

Palm Beach sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul, whose family business was seized by Fidel Castro’s regime in 1959, told the Washington Post this week that he believes the time has come to ease relations with his former country. Fanjul, a supporter of former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, has quietly started visiting the island and meeting with top Cuban officials to explore investment options there.

“If there is some way the family flag could be taken back to Cuba, then I am happy to do that,” he told the Post in a rare interview.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa Bay, last year came out in favor of ending the embargo. Crist rival, former state Sen. Nan Rich, of Weston, also a candidate for governor, has endorsed the change in policy.

President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to the island with an executive order in January 2009, but remains steadfast against lifting the embargo.

While polling on Cuba, the embargo and Florida voters is scarce, a Florida International University survey after the 2008 elections found that 55 percent of Florida Cuban-Americans wanted the embargo lifted.

Yet a 2011 FIU survey found the opposite was true when it came to Miami-Dade Cuban-Americans, 56 percent of whom favored keeping the embargo. That survey heavily sampled Republicans, however, who are less likely to vote for the Democrat anyway.

Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo contributed to this report.