Hillary Clinton embraces new conventional wisdom on Cuba

Democratic front-runner calls for more engagement as a mechanism for weakening the Castro government

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Friday urged the United States to lift its trade embargo against Cuba. She made the call during a policy address in Miami — the cradle of America’s Cuban-American expatriate community, known for decades for its fierce resistance to any relations with the communist government in Havana.

Lifting the embargo and promoting closer engagement with Cuba would have a democratizing and liberalizing effect on the island nation, Clinton said.

“I understand the skepticism in this community about any policy of engagement toward Cuba,” she said. “As many of you know, I’ve been skeptical too. But you’ve been promised progress for 50 years, and we can’t wait any longer for a failed policy to take fruit. We have to seize this moment."

A bipartisan consensus has preserved the Cuban embargo for decades; her husband, President Bill Clinton, signed into law the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened the policy and provided its current legal framework. But public opinion has shifted significantly in recent years, including in Florida’s Cuban-American community.

As Barack Obama’s administration has steadily moved toward normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba, polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans — including Cuban-Americans — favor greater engagement between the United States and Cuba. An April poll found that 51 percent of Cuban-Americans surveyed said they support the Obama administration’s approach, including 66 percent of those born in the United States. Hillary Clinton’s call for lifting the embargo would have sounded radical a decade ago; by Friday, it was rapidly approaching conventional wisdom.

Her decision to focus on Cuba — and to do so in Miami — puts further pressure on the two Florida politicians currently running for the Republican presidential nomination. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush both staunchly oppose lifting the embargo, a position that has put them increasingly at odds with younger Cuban-Americans.

During her Friday speech, Clinton used hawkish rhetoric to frame diplomatic engagement with Cuba as a mechanism for combating the Castro regime, not empowering it. An influx of U.S. products, companies and political values would force the Cuban government to liberalize, she said.

“Engagement is not a gift to the Castros. It’s a threat to the Castros,” she said. “An American Embassy in Havana is not a concession. It’s a beacon.”

Normalizing relations with Cuba is part of a broader foreign policy vision that Clinton spelled out near the end of her speech. In addition to closer ties with Havana, she said, she wants more engagement and collaboration with Latin America in general. 

“No region in the world is better positioned to emerge as a new force for global peace and progress,” said Clinton, who called for the United States to lead in the region on issues such as “combating climate change” and standing “in defense of our shared values against regimes like that in Venezuela.”

Global engagement appears to be the foundation of her overall foreign policy message. Decrying the “go-it-alone American policy” of prior administrations, she said the U.S. must “shape global events rather than reacting to them and being shaped by them."

“That’s what I will do as president, starting right here in our own hemisphere,” she said.

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