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Clinton Position On Cuba Signals New Political Era

Hillary Clinton poses for a family photo with former President Bill Clinton, daughter Chelsea, and son-in-law Marc Mezvinsky, after attending Chelsea's Oxford University graduation ceremony last month.
Matt Dunham

One of the few revelations in Hard Choices,former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's new book about her time in the Obama administration, is that she urged President Obama to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

"Since 1960, the United States had maintained an embargo against the island in hopes of squeezing Castro from power, but it only succeeded in giving him a foil to blame for Cuba's economic woes," Clinton writes. "It wasn't achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America."

In an interview with NPR, Clinton elaborated: "I would support normalizing relations, which could very well lead to lifting the embargo," she said. "But I would hasten to add that I've been down this road both in the '90s and with President Obama where we make a move toward Cuba and, in my opinion, the Castros do not want the embargo lifted. It's their best friend.

"They can look as though they are standing up against America. They can blame every problem in Cuba on the embargo. Because I know what happened when my husband wanted to normalize. I know what President Obama was willing to do."

Hillary Clinton cited the shooting down of a small airplane with two anti-Castro activists by the Cuban military during the Clinton administration and Cuba's imprisonment of U.S. government contractor Alan Gross during the Obama administration as acts done "all to stymie the effort to try to force Cuba to be more open by normalizing our relationship."

There may be no greater sign of the declining power of the Cuba embargo as an issue in U.S. politics than Clinton's openness about advocating for its end.

This is a noteworthy moment, something close to a sea change in American politics. It is the first time a politician from one of the two major parties with a real possibility of becoming the party's presidential nominee has stated publicly that the embargo should end.

For Clinton, well-known as cautious, deliberate and cagey, to publicize this in her book shows just how much the political climate has changed, especially in the mother of all battleground states — Florida.

Obama, for instance, called for an end to the embargo in January 2004 before he won a U.S. Senate seat. But by August 2007, when he was running for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, he was telling audiences, especially in Florida, that he supported the embargo.

In that, he joined generations of politicians who knew the quickest way to antagonize Cuban-American voters, particularly those who fled Fidel Castro's Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, was to call for an end to the embargo.

Clinton's comments, however, reflect the growing political power of a younger generation of Cuban-Americans for whom the embargo holds little to no meaning. A 2011 poll conducted for the Cuban Research Institute and the Ford Foundation showed this dynamic, as well as the tendency of those Cubans who arrived in the U.S. in 1994 and later to oppose the embargo.

An Atlantic Council poll from earlier this year found that even in Miami-Dade County, the Florida locality with the highest percentage of Cuban-Americans, 64 percent of adults supported an end to the embargo and the normalization of economic and other ties with Cuba. Nationally, 56 percent of respondents favored normalization. Even a majority of Republicans, 52 percent, favored normal relations with Cuba.

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas are two politicians who buck the trend of younger Americans with Cuban roots who favor ending the embargo. Both are 43 years old and frequently mentioned as 2016 Republican presidential candidates. It will be interesting to see what political use, if any, they make of this newest revelation by the former secretary of state.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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