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Saturday, December 10, 2016

By Marc Caputo and Adam C. Smith, The Miami Herald

MIAMI — In a move that would have been unthinkable for any statewide Florida candidate just a few years ago, Charlie Crist is planning to visit Cuba this summer.

Nothing is final, but the Democratic candidate for governor is eager to learn more about Cuba as he calls for normalizing relations with the island 90 miles south of Key West.

“We ought to think big. We ought to lift the embargo on Cuba and work with the president and get things done,” Crist said earlier this week during a visit to the Versailles Restaurant in Miami, where he didn’t disclose that he’s considering a visit to the island.

The Little Havana landmark, a frequent Republican campaign spot and exile gathering place, is the last place where soft-on-embargo positions were once espoused.

Crist, too, used to support the embargo and backed it as late as 2010 in his failed U.S. Senate bid as a Republican.

Crist’s new position — the latest flip flop in a string of reversals — was instantly panned by Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his newly appointed lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

“He’s been a Republican. He has been an independent and a Democrat,” Lopez-Cantera said at a campaign stop Wednesday in Miami. “There’s one party left in Cuba that maybe he’s considering switching to: The Communist Party.”

“It just shows Charlie’s ignorance on the issue of Cuba,” Lopez-Cantera said, adding that that his “family lost everything” and that his grandmother’s brothers were imprisoned by the Castro regime.

Scott said Crist would be a “puppet” of the Castro regime and would help enrich it by simply traveling there.

Florida’s governor has no authority to lift or modify the decades-old embargo, which would take an act of Congress, but he can influence public opinion and the issue is considered a political litmus test for many hard-line Castro opponents.

The Scott’s campaign has been actively reaching out to Cuban-American voters — who comprise more than 70 percent of the GOP voter in Miami-Dade County — by making them aware of Crist’s stance on the embargo ever since he voiced the position earlier this year.

Attitudes, however, are changing toward Cuba across Florida and in Miami. Recent polls show a majority of Floridians, including Cuban-Americans, support normalizing relations and lifting travel with the communist island.

Still, Crist’s position carries potential political risk as well as rewards. No one’s quite sure.

“According to electoral politics, it’s a risk,” said Sebastian Arcos, associate director of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute, which annually polls attitudes about Cuba.

“Politicians look at polls and say ‘oh, 60 percent are against the embargo,’ but they forget that many of the people polled don’t vote and that most of the Cubans who vote are supportive of the embargo,” Arcos said.

Yet the Cuban-American vote is proportionately shrinking in Miami-Dade and Florida, while Latinos from Puerto Rico and Central and South America increase in numbers. And polls show non-Cuban Latinos are far less likely to support the embargo.

Despite the embargo, more Cuban-Americans and other U.S. citizens are traveling to Cuba. And more U.S. money than ever before is being sent to the island by relatives who live in the United States.

But embargo hardliners are still more likely to vote and base their vote on that issue, said Dario Moreno, an FIU pollster and political science professor. “This is poking the bear,” he said.