Miami Democrat says Cuba visit reinforced need to lift embargo

David Richardson, right, visits a Havana restaurant this week during a two-day visit to Cuba. Richardson, a Democratic state legislator, is running for Congress.
David Richardson, right, visits a Havana restaurant this week during a two-day visit to Cuba. Richardson, a Democratic state legislator, is running for Congress.

A decision by President Donald Trump to dial back travel and trade in Cuba has hurt small business owners instead of the island’s Communist regime, a Miami congressional candidate said Wednesday following a rare two-day campaign stop on the island.

David Richardson, a state representative who for the last six years has represented Miami Beach and Little Havana, spent roughly 36 hours in Cuba this week, returning to Miami on Tuesday night. He said his visit — focused on meetings with local business owners and members of the country’s gay community — reinforced his opinion that the trade embargo put in place after Fidel Castro’s revolution has been counterproductive.

“We need to lift the embargo,” Richardson told the Miami Herald. “I absolutely believe that the people in Cuba are being harmed right now because of this policy. We need to lift the embargo so that ordinary citizens can be empowered and through their empowerment they will change policy in Cuba. It’s ridiculous or nonsense for us to believe that a continuation of a failed policy that’s 60 years old is going to somehow change the minds of the Cuban regime.”

Richardson traveled to Cuba on Monday, becoming perhaps the first congressional candidate in the U.S. to visit as he works to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress as the representative for Florida’s 27th congressional district. He’s running in the Democratic primary against Michael Hepburn, Matt Haggman, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Donna Shalala.

Absentee ballots for the Aug. 28 primary go out in the mail before the end of the month.

Richardson’s campaign says he planned the visit in order to meet with entrepreneurs, journalists and members of the LGBTQ community. The candidate says he didn’t meet with any government officials or frequent any military-owned shops — which would potentially violate federal law — but rather visited restaurants, a dance studio and a jewelry and clothing store created after then-President Barack Obama loosened restrictions on trade and travel.

Richardson says the clothing shop, Clandestina, has benefited from improved internet access and trade. He also said the island’s gay community talked to him about being more able to openly express their sexuality in the years since Raúl Castro took over for his older brother.

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David Richardson, right, visits Clandestina, a jewelry and clothing store in Havana. Courtesy David Richardson campaign

On the other hand, Richardson said a new policy implemented by new Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel barring Cubans on the island from owning a license for more than one business and a pledge to enforce a law limiting paladares, privately run restaurants, to 50 seats are among recent changes that have concerned business owners. He also said entrepreneurs also told him that Trump’s decision last year to undo some of the trade-friendly changes made by former President Obama in 2014 appears to have undercut business by dissuading tourism.

“The Cuban small businesses we talked to feel that they are far worse off today because of the policy changes that were made by Trump,” said Richardson, who was told by business owners that the Cuban government has mostly stopped issuing business licenses altogether. “And that further puts them at the mercy of the regime instead of letting them fully experience the benefits of a world economy.”

Richardson previously traveled to Puerto Rico this summer while on the stump. But unlike his trip to the hurricane-ravaged island, a visit to Havana tiptoed close to what has long been a political third rail in Miami, home to the world’s largest community of Cuban exiles. Political leaders, particularly Cuban-American Republicans, have led the country’s hard-line diplomacy for decades.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who helped shape Trump’s Cuba policy, said Trump’s changes are keeping money away from the authoritarian Cuban government.

“Our President has taken important steps to tighten sanctions by restricting financial transactions with the Cuban military, which is crucial to prohibiting U.S. dollars from benefiting the Cuban people’s oppressors,” he said. “Until all political prisoners are freed, independent press and independent labor unions are legalized, and free, fair, multiparty elections are scheduled, the regime’s superficial adjustments are simply transparent attempts to continue its repressive dictatorship.”

On the Republican side of the District 27 race, former political consultant Stephen Marks took a shot at front-runner Maria Elvira Salazar Wednesday by airing a Spanish-language ad that seeks to cast her as soft on Castro and Cuba. On the Democratic side, Shalala told the Miami Herald Monday that she would “never go to Cuba until it is a free country,”

But Richardson says that’s an outdated philosophy. And by further expanding trade, he believes the U.S. can improve lives for Cubans.

“Change isn’t going to happen because the U.S. dictates it,” he said. “Change will happen because the people in Cuba are empowered to dictate the changes to the Cuban regime.”