Senate candidate Beruff says he wants to keep Cuba embargo but his actions don’t agree

Carlos Beruff announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate at Vicky Bakery in Miami on February 29, 2016.
Carlos Beruff announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate at Vicky Bakery in Miami on February 29, 2016. Miami Herald file photo

Just where does U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Beruff stand on relations with Cuba? It’s complicated.

Since Beruff, a Republican from Manatee County, announced his campaign in February, he has consistently said he would oppose ending the embargo with Cuba without major democratic reforms. That helps align him with hardline embargo supporters like U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who could face Beruff in the primary if he runs for re-election.

But Beruff’s campaign position doesn’t jibe with his actions less than five years ago, when he boarded a plane in Tampa for the first commercial flight from Tampa Bay to Cuba in nearly 50 years.

Back then, Beruff was one of a select few businessmen invited to go on the historic trip sponsored by the anti-embargo advocacy group, the Alliance for a Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. The flight, which cost over $450 for Beruff, included Ybor City-raised Albert A. Fox Jr., one of the most well known advocates of re-establishing trade with Cuba. For four days in September 2011 the group met with Cuban business leaders and government officials.

But Beruff, born in Miami to Cuban refugees, says now that when he agreed to go on the trip he had no idea it was about advocating for ending the embargo. During a campaign stop in Jacksonville last Friday, Beruff said he was simply “along for the ride” and had no idea who Fox was or why the other people on the flight were going to Cuba.

“It wasn’t anything to do with politics,” Beruff said about his reasons. “I was just a tourist.”

But those on the trip say the mission was about ending the embargo that started in 1962.

“It was crystal clear why all of us were there,” said Victor DiMaio, who was working with the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation to arrange the trip.

Henry Rodriguez, a Sarasota County businessman who was also on the trip, said after four days in Cuba with the group, he was even more convinced that ending the embargo is the right thing to do.

“I went because I believe we can secure freedom through free trade,” said Rodriguez, a friend of Beruff’s who also served for the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport Authority in 2011 with Beruff.

As a politician, Beruff’s harsh criticism of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba earlier this year fits with a traditional approach Republicans have used to court Miami’s older Cuban-American voters.

Tampa Bay, which has been open to trade with Cuba, has only a fraction of Miami-Dade’s Cuban-American population. About 1 million people of Cuban ancestry live in Miami, compared to less than 90,000 in Tampa Bay.

It’s not the first time Beruff has had to explain his views on Cuba. In 2014, Beruff told the Bradenton Herald that he saw no reason for the nations to be locked in the embargo. Beruff says now that the newspaper left out key context. He said his view then was for ending the embargo, but only with democratic reforms.

“I’ve never been against doing business with Cuba,” Beruff, 58, said. “But I’m against doing business with the communist regime where you negotiate nothing [back].”

He said for him to agree to do business in Cuba, dissidents would have to be released and there would have to be freedom of the press.

The campaign of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican, has blasted Beruff the last two weeks for “shifting his policy views for political expediency.” Lopez-Cantera has opposed Obama’s efforts to ease trade restrictions and declared travel to Cuba a way to support the dictatorship.

“The embargo stands for, and should continue to stand for, human rights and freedom,” Lopez-Cantera, the son of Cuban refugees, said earlier this year.

Lopez-Cantera appears on the brink of getting out of the race, saying on Wednesday he’s encouraged his friend Rubio to run instead. Beruff’s campaign said even if Rubio runs, Beruff intends to continue his campaign in a primary against him on Aug. 30. In Rubio, Beruff would be facing an even stronger Cuba critic. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on Cuba last year, Rubio warned that tourists would be spending money on hotels and transportation controlled by the Castro regime, providing them with essential financial support.

While taking a hard line in support of the embargo was once a pillar of Florida politics, that has changed over the years as younger Cubans have become less rigidly in support of the embargo. That’s even true in Miami. While 60 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade favor continuing the embargo, according to the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, 62 percent of Cuban-Americans under age 29 oppose it.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.