Democrat Charlie Crist, who stirred debate by announcing he favors lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba and would visit the island during his campaign for governor, said Monday he won’t be making the trip after all.
Crist’s campaign suggested the reversal is because it would be difficult to fit the trip into the four months and a few days remaining before the Nov. 4 election, but Crist also faced a political backlash from South Florida Democrats, many of whom back the embargo.
“Between now and November, Governor Crist is determined to spend as much time as possible meeting with Floridians to discuss creating a stronger economy for our middle class families,” said a statement from Crist campaign spokesman Brendan Gilfillan. “If at some point after the election there is an opportunity to travel there to learn from the people of Cuba and help find opportunities for Florida businesses the governor will go,”
The statement gave no further explanation for Crist’s change of heart.
Dario Moreno, an expert on Florida Hispanic politics at Florida International University, said Crist faced a backlash from Cuban-Americans and some Venezuelans in Miami-Dade County, a must-win county for any Democrat in a statewide election.
“He realized it was a fool’s errand, and it was better to backtrack than to continue with this bad idea,” Moreno said.
Most hard-line anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in the Miami area are Republicans, but they include some Democrats, Moreno said, and several prominent South Florida Democrats favor maintaining the embargo — including U.S. Reps. Joe Garcia of Miami and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who’s also national Democratic Party chairwoman.
A June survey by the Miami political polling firm Bendixen and Amandi International said 26 percent of Miami-Dade County voters would be less likely to vote for Crist because of the trip, and only 4 percent more likely, he said.
The reversal appears likely to upset Crist supporters who oppose the embargo and welcomed his decision to go.
“I’m not upset but I am disappointed that he would change his mind after a lot of plans had been made,” said David Straz of Tampa, a businessman and philanthropist who made news by endorsing Crist in April. Straz said he still supports Crist, but, “I am disappointed that he would change his mind once again.”
Jason Busto, a Tampa civic activist and supporter of closer ties with Cuba, used even stronger language.
“Charlie Crist is making a very big mistake,” Busto said. “He needs to stand behind what he said he was going to do. It’s foolish not to go.”
The flip by Crist also appears likely to add to his reputation for reversals on issues.
As a Republican running for governor in 2006 campaign, Crist staunchly backed the embargo and blasted his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, for visiting Cuba. Davis didn’t advocate lifting the embargo. Crist continued to back the embargo during his 2007-11 term in office.
But in January, he attended a cocktail reception in Tampa for the top Cuban diplomat in the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. The reception was sponsored by the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, which advocates closer U.S.-Cuba ties.
Then in February, Crist said he had decided that because the embargo had failed after 50 years to achieve its goal of ending the domination of the island by Fidel Castro and his brother Raoul, it’s time to end it.
He became the first major candidate for governor from either party ever to take that stand.
That view hasn’t changed, Gilfillan said.
“Despite his stark disagreements with the government in Cuba, the governor continues to believe the embargo hasn’t worked for the Cuban people and is bad for Florida’s economy,” Gilfillan said.
Al Fox, executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, was arranging Crist’s trip. Fox took then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco to Cuba in 2002 for a visit that included a meeting with Fidel Castro.
Fox wouldn’t comment on the cancellation.
Those planning to go included Straz, Fox, local political consultant Victor DiMaio and his mother, prominent civic activist Mercy DiMaio, and Patrick Manteiga, a Democratic political activist and publisher of the Tampa weekly newspaper La Gaceta.
Manteiga said the U.S. State Department approved the trip.
Scott’s campaign had criticized Crist’s plans for the trip, even though prominent Florida businesspeople who support Scott have visited Cuba and advocate ending the embargo. So have members of a political consulting firm that has done work for Scott.
In comments to reporters in Tampa in May, Scott said Crist would be “helping the Castro regime” by making the trip, but didn’t respond to questions about whether his own backers were also helping the Castros.