Patrick Murphy breaks barrier on U.S.-Cuban relations in Rubio challenge
Thursday, October 13, 2016 6:00am
TALLAHASSEE — For the first time in Florida's modern political history, Patrick Murphy is proposing something that no major party nominee for the U.S. Senate has dared to say. End the embargo with Cuba and replace it with more targeted sanctions.
For the last 54 years, the one automatic for any Republican or Democrat seeking to win a U.S. Senate seat in Florida was to assure voters they would back the embargo with Cuba until it forced the communist dictatorship out of power.
From when the embargo started in 1960 through 2012, every single party nominee for the U.S. Senate — both Democratic and Republican — opposed weakening the embargo.
And for good reason. Almost 1 million Cuban-Americans live in Miami-Dade — the state's most populous county — and as a bloc they can end any candidate's political ambitions.
Florida's senior senator, Bill Nelson, a Democrat, has not called for ending the embargo. But he has been firm in calling for changes of U.S. policy toward Cuba to "get into the 21st century" and has supported President Barack Obama's steps to normalize relations.
Enter Murphy, a Miami native, who backs Obama's efforts to engage more with Cuba.
Suddenly, Florida voters are in a position to have both U.S. Senators who support a more open diplomatic approach to Cuba.
"It's monumental," said Hector Perla, senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Perla said if Florida — 90 miles from Cuba — suddenly has both senators supportive of warmer relations with Cuba, it changes the entire debate in Washington.
Murphy's position is even more startling given he faces U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in November. Rubio's world view is shaped by his Cuban roots. He's positioned himself as the Obama administration's toughest critic on Cuba. He has been unwavering in his support of the embargo and has opposed scaling back restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. In fact while running for president, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who has lived most of his life in Miami, told The Guardian he "absolutely" would have reversed Obama's policies toward Cuba.
"The President's decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable," Rubio said in 2014. Rubio pledged to use his position as a subcommittee chairman to block the administration's "dangerous" policies toward Cuba.
Since then Rubio has castigated the administration every time it has taken action on Cuba, whether it was lifting some commercial and travel sanctions, removing Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, or when Obama visited Havana.
Rubio said he wants change in the U.S. policy, but only if the Cuban government also offers change. Obama's efforts have all been one sided with no concessions from Cuba, he says.
Democrats like Murphy, particularly in Florida, have followed Obama's lead in calling for a change in the decades old adherence to the embargo. Already there is a growing contingent of Republicans around the nation that also has been pushing to end the embargo.
Polls shows why.
Nearly 70 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County support the U.S. decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and a strong majority — 63 percent — oppose the embargo, according to a Florida International University poll released last month.
The poll reveals a major shift in Cuban-American attitudes toward U.S.-Cuba relations. Support for the embargo has steadily declined among Cuban-Americans in the Miami area — from an average of 84 percent in the 1990s to just 37 percent this year.
"The majority support at least some elements of the new course now being charted,'' said FIU professor Guillermo J. Grenier.
While older Cubans mostly support the embargo, younger Cubans in Miami have been increasingly open to resuming relations. Their reasoning is that as U.S. influence floods the island nation, the dictatorship will crumble faster.
Still those poll numbers have never been tested in an election for the Senate which has the power to change the law. When Nelson last ran for re-election in 2012, it was before Obama's moved to normalize relations. Nelson has been cautious in his statements about Cuba, but signaled the need for a change of approach.
It's a different era now, said former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, a Tampa Democrat. In 2003, Davis, then a 3rd term congressman, visited Cuba on a fact finding mission, becoming the first U.S. Congressman from Florida to visit the island openly. Three years later, that visit resonated in Miami, haunting his gubernatorial run.
"People didn't really know me there, but what they knew was that I had gone to Cuba," Davis said. "It was a shut door. I still won Hispanic votes in Miami but it definitely hurt me with Cubans."
Davis, a Murphy supporter, said this year's Florida senate race could be historic.
"If you had two U.S. Senators from Florida ready to move past the embargo, that is a powerful change in the debate in Washington," Davis said.
Patrick Murphy breaks barrier on U.S.-Cuban relations in Rubio challenge 10/13/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 12, 2016 7:16pm]