Clinton Calls for Unilateral End to Cuba Embargo

Hillary Clinton on Friday called for a unilateral lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Above, a man in Havana identified as Yasiel wears a shirt with the U.S. flag on July 2. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

Democratic presidential front runner Hillary Clinton is calling for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which has been in place since 1962.

"We must decide between engagement and embargo, between embracing fresh thinking and returning to Cold War deadlock," Clinton said during a campaign event in Miami on Friday. "The Cuba embargo needs to go once and for all."

She said the embargo should be replaced with a "smarter approach" that encourages progress in Cuba while putting pressure on the Castro regime.

"Anyone who thinks we can trust this regime hasn't learned the lessons of history," Clinton said. "But as secretary of state it became clear to me our policy of isolating Cuba was strengthening the Castros rather than weakening them."

The former New York senator acknowledged that she had voted to tighten the embargo in 1996 after four Cuban-Americans died when Cuba shot down two American planes distributing leaflets to the island, but argued that "engagement is not a gift to the Castros," but "a threat to the Castros."

Clinton said she would let Raúl Castro "explain to his people why he wants to prevent American investment" in Cuba.

"I know for many this debate is not an intellectual exercise," she added. "It is deeply personal."

The embargo is a highly contentious issue on both sides of the Florida straits. Among the Cuban exile community, mostly concentrated in south Florida, any hint of engagement with the Castro government can be politically dangerous. U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both the sons of Cuban exiles, strongly oppose ending the embargo while the Castro regime remains in power. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush also favors continuing the embargo. All three are contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.

Outside of the exile community, the idea of lifting the embargo is not particularly contentious. More than 70 percent of Americans, and more than half of Republicans, favor ending it.

However, the importance of Florida in the Republican presidential primary contest cannot be overstated. To win the nomination, a Republican candidate must carry Florida. And, in order to carry Florida, a Republican must woo the Cuban exile vote. This puts the GOP candidates in a tough spot: To become the nominee, they must endorse a policy unpopular with most Americans.

Clinton took careful aim at her Republican rivals: "The GOP would play right into hard liners' hands," she said, cutting Cubans off from free market capitalism and democracy, a "tragedy for the millions of Cubans who yearn for closer ties."

In December 2014, President Barack Obama announced a "new direction" in U.S. policy toward Cuba, one that would favor engagement over isolation. Earlier in July, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Havana, which had been closed since 1961.

In Cuba, the embargo is called el bloqueo, the blockade, and it is enormously unpopular.