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Charlie Crist’s Cuba Gambit: The onetime (and future?) Florida governor makes a daring move

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May 22, 2014

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Charlie Crist recently announced that he might go to Cuba this summer, a move unprecedented in Florida politics. In Politico, AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini analyzes the implications of this announcement, examining how changing demographics and political attitudes in Florida have created a shift in the political approach towards the island in Florida and in the United States in general.

Charlie Crist’s Cuba Gambit

By: Christopher Sabatini

A decade ago, a declaration by a Florida gubernatorial candidate that he wanted to travel to Cuba would have been political suicide, the kind of self-inflicted wound that ruins careers. Florida houses nearly 1 million Cuban-Americans, many of whom fled Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959 and in the repressive years that followed. 

So what are we to make of Charlie Crist’s recent announcement that he might be considering a summer trip to Havana? Crist, a former Republican governor and now a Democrat seeking to oust incumbent Rick Scott, would seem to be deliberately sabotaging his campaign. He’s even making noises about lifting the embargo, long a no-no in Florida politics. So is Crist crazy? 

Not really. Thanks to changes on both sides of the Florida Straits, Crist’s plans no longer seem outrageous. In fact, they show just how much the state has changed in the 50-odd years since Castro first took power. 

President Barack Obama provided the first clues to the changing politics of Cuba when he won Florida in 2008 without any of the usual pandering to hard-line anti-Castro voters. Florida had, after all, voted Republican in 2004 and was the key to George W. Bush’s election in 2000. In 2012, Obama won the state, albeit barely, despite his decision early in his first term to overturn Bush-era rules that limited the travel of Cuban-Americans to Cuba and placed a ceiling on family remittances to the island. The move caused barely a ripple of opposition in Miami and was even openly welcomed in some quarters; the Bush reforms, intended to starve the Castro regime of much-needed hard currency, were unpopular among many younger Cuban-Americans. Unlike the generation of Cuban-Americans who arrived in Miami shortly after the Cuban revolution (with the fire of revenge in their bellies), many of these new immigrants retained close ties to families and friends on the island — a key reason why Obama was able to take a majority of the state’s Cuban-American vote. 

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