Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday called for lifting the embargo on Cuba, saying closer relations with the island nation will bring about change and new freedoms.
In a speech in Miami, Mrs. Clinton said the country “must decide between engagement and embargo, between embracing fresh thinking and returning to Cold War deadlock,” as she sought to position herself as a forward-looking alternative to Republican supporters of the economic blockade.
Last year, President Obama announced that after a half-century, he was moving to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Cuban government.
Mrs. Clinton is seeking to seize on shifting attitudes toward the embargo in a major swing state’s Cuban-American community.
“The upcoming presidential election will determine if we chart a new path forward or turn back to the old ways of the past,” she said in Miami at Florida International University.
In her remarks, Mrs. Clinton framed the opening with Cuba as a choice between a 21st-century foreign policy and a return to “cowboy diplomacy.” She also called the embargo “an albatross” on the United States in its maneuvering in Latin America.
She argued that exposure to more American commerce and travelers and the Internet would be more effective in changing the policies of a government that continued, she acknowledged, in “beating and harassing” its political opponents and “cracking down on free expression and the Internet.” She said that, as president, she would use executive authority to make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba if Congress does not lift the embargo.
“I understand the skepticism in this community,” she said, but added, “We have to seize this moment.”
Mrs. Clinton’s Republican opponents, especially those in Florida, disagree. Senator Marco Rubio, who is now seen in Cuba as the leading advocate for the embargo, said in a statement released on Friday that Mrs. Clinton “is making another grave mistake. Unilateral concessions to the Castros will only strengthen a brutal, anti-American regime.”
Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, who has deep political roots in Miami’s Cuban-American community, called it “insulting to many residents of Miami for Hillary Clinton to come here to endorse a retreat in the struggle for democracy in Cuba.”
But in choosing the school where Mr. Rubio is an adjunct professor and a city where Mr. Bush lives, Mrs. Clinton clearly welcomed the debate.
“Fundamentally, most Republican candidates still view Cuba — and Latin America more broadly — through an outdated Cold War lens,” Mrs. Clinton said.
The politics around the issue have changed. There are 1.8 million Cuban-Americans in the United States, and half of them reside in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. But Mr. Obama essentially split the Cuban-American vote with Mitt Romney in 2012.
To buttress her case, she called on examples both personal (“I’m so privileged to have a sister-in-law who is Cuban-American”) and papal (“We will follow the lead of Pope Francis,” who was instrumental in brokering the opening between the two nations.) She also explicitly drew a distinction between herself and her husband.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton, seeking re-election and courting voters in Florida, found himself under pressure to sign the embargo into federal statute. Mr. Clinton had sought to improve relations with Cuba, but in the election year Cuba shot down two planes of Brothers to the Rescue, a Florida-based group that provided assistance to Cubans escaping the island by raft.
Under pressure from the Cuban-American activists and Republicans, Mr. Clinton ultimately signed the Helms-Burton bill, which made the embargo federal statute.
“Supporting the bill was good election-year politics in Florida,” Mr. Clinton wrote in his autobiography, “My Life.” “But it undermined whatever chance I might have if I won a second term to lift the embargo in return for positive changes within Cuba.”
If supporting the embargo was good election-year politics in 1996, Mrs. Clinton is betting that calling for it to be lifted will be good politics two decades later.
“I did not come to this position lightly,” she said Friday, noting that she herself had supported the Helms-Burton Act. As recently as her last presidential run, in 2008, Mrs. Clinton maintained that democracy in Cuba was a prerequisite for a change of American policy there.
But the shift in Cuban-American attitudes, along with the general leftward tilt of the Democratic electorate, have perhaps contributed to Mrs. Clinton’s movement on the matter. Mrs. Clinton said that she came to the determination as secretary of state that keeping the embargo in place unintentionally helped the government there. She said early gestures at easing American restrictions on travel and cash remittances led her, at the end of her term as secretary, to recommend to the president “that we end the failed embargo and double down on a strategy of engagement.”