Charlie Crist’s epic Cuba flip-flop

May 9, 2014

Former Florida governor Charlie Crist waits for his interview with MSNBC’S “Ed Show,” while Jessica Clark, his deputy campaign manager, holds a fan to keep him cool during the interview. (Willie J. Allen Jr./ For The Washington Post)

“I understand that it’s important not to go to Cuba when she’s under the dictatorship, but unfortunately the man I’m running against doesn’t understand that. But I know that you do,” Charlie Crist said in 2006, lobbing a powerful political bomb at an opponent who had traveled to Cuba.

As a Republican running for office in Florida, backing a trade embargo on Cuba is almost required. And when Crist was running for governor in 2006, that’s the position he held. As recently as 2010, when he ran for a U.S. Senate seat, Crist said he supported an embargo and opposed lifting a travel ban until Cuba’s totalitarian regime started treating its own people better.

But, as with so many issues on which Crist has evolved, that was then; this is now. And Charlie Crist the Democrat wants to go to Cuba.

Crist has changed his position on everything from the Affordable Care Act to abortion rights to gay marriage in order to fit in better with his new party. But perhaps no single issue illustrates Crist’s evolving ideology than his newfound interest in traveling 90 miles south of Key West.

His evolution on Florida’s southern neighbor started in February, when Crist said he wanted to end the trade embargo. Earlier this week, Crist went a step farther and said he is considering visiting Cuba himself this summer. He hasn’t finalized plans, the Tampa Bay Times reported, but those plans are in the works.

“We ought to think big. We ought to lift the embargo on Cuba and work with the president to get things done,” Crist told a crowd at Versailles Restaurant, a political hot spot in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

And what a symbol Crist chose: Versailles is the same restaurant where he bashed his opponent, then-Rep. Jim Davis (D), for going to Cuba back in 2003.

That Crist would flip-flop on an issue is no surprise. But his interest in Cuba stands out as a remarkable reversal in a political career filled with malleable positions.

As governor, Crist signed legislation in 2008 that required travel companies that wanted to send flights to Cuba to post a $250,000 bond. When he ran for Senate in 2010, he stuck to his hard line on Cuba in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

“The problem is, you have this totalitarian regime that is down there that locks up journalists, suppresses freedom, doesn’t allow for open dialogue, and I think unless and until that begins to occur, it is not in Florida’s or I don’t think America’s best interests to be embracing of that kind of government,” Crist said. Would he support lifting the travel ban? “No, I wouldn’t. Not until they offer more freedoms to their own people first and demonstrate that they’re serious about it.”

To make his position even more clear: “I do support the embargo,” Crist said during a June 14, 2010, visit to Miami Beach.

Crist’s new position, perhaps not surprisingly, is politically expedient. Polls are starting to show younger Cubans disagree with older generations about the sanctions and the travel ban. Cuban voters, long a solidly Republican voting bloc in south Florida, are starting to split their votes more evenly between the two parties.

Hispanic voters are even less of a monolithic group in Florida than they are in other states. While Cubans have long held a powerful position in South Florida politics, Puerto Rican and Central American voters are starting to comprise a bigger slice of the Hispanic vote, especially in the Orlando and Tampa Bay areas. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed Crist leading Gov. Rick Scott (R) 46 percent to 28 percent among Hispanic voters.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.
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