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In Miami, Hillary Clinton calls for lifting Cuba embargo

Clinton on Friday argued Republicans who are against more engagement with Cuba represent failed policies of a bygone era.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called on Congress Friday to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, arguing Republicans who are against more engagement represent failed policies of a bygone era.

“We have arrived at a decisive moment,” the former secretary of state said at Florida International University in Miami. “The Cuban people have waited long enough for progress to come. Even many Republicans on Capitol Hill are starting to recognize the urgency of moving forward. It’s time for their leaders to either get on board or get out of the way. The Cuba embargo needs to go once and for all.”

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The Democratic front-runner's remarks in southern Florida — home to many Cuban-Americans — stood in sharp contrast to comments from several Republican presidential candidates, notably those of the state's former governor Jeb Bush and current senator Marco Rubio.

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has vehemently criticized President Obama’s plans to normalize relations with the communist country, arguing human rights and freedom for the Cuban people were being put on the back burner. Similarly, Bush has said Obama should have taken a harder line with Cuban President Raúl Castro.

Clinton’s stance, meanwhile, coincides with Obama's. The president announced in December that he hammered out a deal with Castro to normalize relations with the two countries, essentially bringing down the final remaining pillar of the Cold War. The U.S. has since opened an embassy in Havana and has taken Cuba off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But lifting the trade embargo would require the green light from the GOP-led Congress, which will be no easy task. House Speaker Boehner has criticized Obama’s moves on Cuba, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has predicted that the Senate will not confirm a new U.S. ambassador to Cuba or lift existing economic sanctions on the country.

During her speech, Clinton took particular aim at Republican leadership in Congress. "Today I am calling on Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell to step up and answer the pleas of the Cuban people,” she said. “By large majorities, they want a closer relationship with America. They want to buy our goods, read our books, surf our web, and learn from our people. They want to bring their country into the 21st century. That is the road toward democracy and dignity. And we should walk it together."

Clinton also acknowledged her past skepticism about policy engagement with Cuba, which she had expressed during her first presidential bid in 2008. The candidate said she understood any hesitancy in the Cuban-U.S. community. However, Clinton said she came to the realization over time that “our previous policy of isolating Cuba was strengthening Castro’s grip” and was “unintentionally helping” the regime keep a closed society.

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“If we go backward, no one will benefit more than the hardliners in Havana,” said Clinton, adding that, as president, she would work with Congress to lift the embargo, use her executive authority to allow more Americans to be able to visit the country, and use America’s new presence to support human and civil rights there.

She also criticized 2016 Republican presidential candidates, saying “They have it backward. Engagement is not a gift to the Castros. It’s a threat to the Castros.” 

Ahead of Clinton’s speech at the university — where Rubio has been an adjunct professor — the senator released a statement declaring Clinton was making a “grave mistake.” He added, “Unilateral concessions to the Castros will only strengthen a brutal anti-American regime 90 miles from our shore. President Obama and Secretary Clinton must learn that appeasement only emboldens dictators and repressive governments and weakens America’s global standing in the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, a Pew poll from earlier this month found growing public support for the  U.S. reestablishing ties with Cuba and ending the trade embargo. In fact, 73% of Americans, including 56% of GOPers, said they were in favor of the U.S. reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. And 72% of Americans, including 59% of Republicans, said they supported ending the trade embargo.