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The Candidates on Cuba Policy

July 17, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

With Fidel Castro ailing and Cuba’s leader-designate, Raul Castro, also advanced in age, it appears likely that the next U.S. president will need to alter policy to accommodate a changing political environment in Cuba. The rhetoric and proposed policies of the presidential candidates towards the island nation will undoubtedly hold weight in this contest, especially since, as in past elections, the Cuban exiles in Florida are expected to represent a key voting constituency in 2008.  

Democratic Ticket on Cuba Policy

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama has broken with the status quo on U.S. policy toward Cuba, calling for travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans to be lifted. "There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans,"Obama said in a May 2008 speech in Miami, explaining why he would "immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island."

In February 2008, Obama called Fidel Castro's resignation "the end of a dark era in Cuba's history," and called for a democratic transition there. He urged the "prompt release of all political prisoners" in Cuba, and said the United States should prepare to "begin taking steps to normalize relations and to ease the embargo of the last five decades." Still, in May 2008 Obama said he would not lift the embargo until the Cuban government takes steps to "democratize the island."

In an August 2007 op-ed in the Miami Herald, Obama also said he will engage in bilateral talks with Cuba to send the message that the United States is willing to normalize relations with Cuba upon evidence of a democratic opening. Obama has also said under his administration, the United States would hold a "series of meetings with low-level diplomats," (McClatchy) and that over time Obama himself would be "willing to meet and talk very directly about what we expect from the Cuban regime."

He has voted twice to cut off TV Marti funding (WashPost).

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE) has supported the U.S. policy of economic embargo and now calls for the development of a strategy for democratization in a post-Castro Cuba. In a CNN interview in 2006, Biden said, "We should be putting together a plan as to how we are going to play a positive role in moving that country, after the Castros are gone, to—more toward democratization and liberalization in their society."

In 1996, Biden voted for the Helms-Burton Act, also known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act. That act, which was passed, sought more stringent international sanctions against the Castro government.

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Republican Ticket on Cuba Policy

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

If elected, Sen. McCain (R-AZ) will "not passively await the day when the Cuban people enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy," he said in a May 2008 speech. He says the United States must provide "material assistance and moral support" to Cubans who oppose the Castro regime. Sen. McCain (R-AZ) has typically voted in support of sanctions on Cuba. In 1992, he cosponsored the Cuban Democracy Act.

In February 2008, McCain said he welcomed Castro's resignation, and said the United States should continue to press for the release of all Cuban political prisoners and for the legalization of "all political parties, labor unions and free media." He also said the United States should urge Cuba to "schedule internationally monitored elections." In May 2008, McCain said he believes the embargo should remain in place until those "basic elements of democratic society are met." He has also said he would "increase Radio and TV Marti and other means to communicate directly with the Cuban people."

Before Castro's resignation, McCain said in a January 2007 interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that upon Castro's death, the United States should "offer a package of trade, of assistance, of economic development, of assistance in democratization—and tell them we will give them all of those things and in return we are asking them to embark on the path to democracy. Including setting a date for free and fair elections."

McCain's campaign has been endorsed (AP) by three Cuban-American Republican representatives from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz-Balart.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on Cuba Policy

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Clinton supports the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Sergio Bendixen*, a pollster for Clinton's campaign, said in January 2007 that Clinton “is going with the status quo” on Cuba. In a 2000 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton explained why she was opposed to lifting the economic embargo (NYT) on an undemocratic Cuba.

Upon Castro's February 2008 resignation from power, Clinton called on the new Cuban government to release all political prisoners and "move forward towards the path of democracy." She also said if she was elected, she would have engaged U.S. partners in Latin America and Europe "who have a strong stake in seeing a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba."

In a Senate vote, Clinton supported maintaining funding for TV Marti, television programming that the U.S. attempts to broadcast in Cuba. The Castro government has been successfully blocking the signal for this programming, and viewership of TV Marti in Cuba is estimated to be extremely low.

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

*Sergio Bendixen joined Barack Obama's presidential campaign in July 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) has been critical of the Bush administration’s policy toward Cuba and of the embargo more generally, which he says “has failed to bring about the changes in Cuba that all of us wish to see, such as freedom, and democracy, and prosperity.” As such, Dodd is currently cosponsoring the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2007 (PDF), which would allow Americans to travel to Cuba. "The United States' most potent weapon against totalitarianism is the influence of ordinary American citizens," he says.

In 2002, after ex-President Jimmy Carter called for an end to the embargo and said Castro should respect human rights, Dodd said Carter’s approach to Cuba is “far more constructive” than that of President Bush.

Dodd proposed the 1999 Cuba Travel Ban Amendment, which would have lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba. That amendment was tabled but never passed, however. 

In 1996, Dodd voted against measures to place sanctions on the Castro government.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

Edwards has expressed support (BosGlobe) for the economic embargo on Cuba. In August 2007, Edwards, like Obama, said he would support an end to travel restrictions (AP) on Cuban families. Still, he said, he would not change remittance caps for now.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Edwards said he supported sanctions that target Fidel Castro's regime but help the innocent Cuban people, allowing trade for food and medical supplies that help ease the horrible burdens (AP) they suffer.”

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

Gravel opposes the embargo on Cuba and has called for a normalization of relations.

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) says U.S. policy toward Cuba “has failed.” He calls for an end to the embargo and a repeal of the Helms-Burton Act. He also opposes the travel ban. 

Kucinich voted in favor of a 2001 House bill which would stop the enforcement of travel restrictions on Cuba once Castro released all political prisoners and extradited those sought by the United States.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Richardson is not in favor of lifting the embargo on Cuba yet, although he has said the United States should be “reevaluating” it. Instead, he said, Cuba’s democratic transition should be a negotiated process with input from other Latin American leaders “where you push for fair elections, where you push for long-term viability of that country and reintegrate it into the Americas.”

Richardson said in a February 2007 foreign policy speech (PDF) that he would “reverse Bush policies restricting remittances and travel to visit loved ones.”

Richardson negotiated the release of three political prisoners in Cuba in 1996.

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on Cuba Policy

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) has expressed support (local10.com) for the embargo on Cuba. Breaking with the Republican White House, however, Brownback in 2003 voted to ease restrictions (NYT) on Americans traveling to Cuba. That amendment to the Treasury and Transportation Departments spending bill passed.

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani is critical of Castro, which he made clear during the debate over whether or not to return Cuban child Elian Gonzales to Cuba in 2000 (Giuliani was an outspoken voice for keeping the boy in the United States).

In June 2007, Giuliani criticized Castro's treatment of homosexuals (NYT), calling him "a murderer, a dictator, a man who has been horrible to gays and lesbians."

Giuliani has also attacked Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for following Castro's "model." (AP) Speaking to Cuban-American voters in Florida, he said the United States must build an alliance with Mexico and Colombia to counteract the shift to the left of Latin American governments.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Though Huckabee previously supported lifting the Cuban embargo, he has since changed his position (LAT). In December 2007, Huckabee said he would veto any effort to end the trade restrictions on the Carribean country. As governor of Arkansas in 2002, however, Huckabee argued that the embargo was harmful to American business. He now says he took that position in an effort to revive Arkansas rice markets (CBS).

In February 2008, after Fidel Castro's announcement that he would be stepping down, Huckabee called for "free and fair elections" in Cuba, but said that until Castro dies, "there can be no significant movement towards reform in Cuba," because, he said, new Cuban leader Raul Castro "has proven that he's as much a tyrant and dictator as his brother Fidel."

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Hunter (R-CA) is a hard-liner with regards to Cuba. He voted in 1992 for the Cuban Democracy Act, which stipulated that subsidiaries of U.S. companies could not do business with Cuba. It also restricted travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.

Hunter voted against a 2001 bill that would have stopped the enforcement of travel restrictions on Cuba only after Castro had released all political prisoners and extradited those sought by the United States for various criminal activities.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX) is generally opposed to sanctions on Cuba. He has worked against the agricultural trade sanctions, which he says, did "nothing to topple the Castro regime, but they have hurt American farmers and the Cuban people." In February 2008, Paul said the U.S. government should take Fidel Castro's resignation as an opportunity to end the embargo on Cuba. "Cuban markets would be a great place for our farmers and businesses to sell their products. And, the power of free markets would quickly push out the remaining totalitarian remnant, finally ending the Communism in the Western Hemisphere," Paul said.

In 2000, Paul voted to end trade restrictions on Cuba , which he believes would benefit his constituency of Texas farmers.

Paul voted for a 2001 House bill which would stop enforcement of travel restrictions on Cuba once Castro released political prisoners and extradited those sought by the United States.

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney supports a continuation of the current U.S. embargo on Cuba. "America will never back down to
the Castro brothers," Romney said (PDF) regarding the sanctions in September 2007.

In a March 2007 interview on Miami's WIOD radio Romney said, "I think we need to continue the pressure and to develop a Latin American strategy that will move more countries toward us and away from the Castro brothers and individuals like Hugo Chavez."

In a speech in Miami in March 2007, Romney praised TV Marti and other U.S. stations broadcasting into Cuba for delivering a "daily flow of truth."

Romney's campaign was supported (AP) by Cuban-born Al Cárdenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo (R-CO), whose campaign is largely focused on immigration issues, has expressed concern that “because of the generous treatment of Cuban exiles and refugees, Florida and Miami have become magnets for illegal aliens fleeing dozens of countries for purely economic reasons.” 

In 2005, Tancredo voted against an amendment to the Science, State, Justice, Commerce, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2006 that would have prohibited the use of funds for those agencies for the enforcement of regulations preventing humanitarian donations to Cuba. That amendment was rejected.

Tancredo voted against a 2001 House bill that would have stopped enforcement of travel restrictions once Castro had released political prisoners and extradited those sought by the United States.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Fred Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson, a staunch critic of longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, blames him also for “the terrible mess” in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. He also says Cuba’s acclaimed free universal medical care system is a “myth,” and adds: “I guarantee even the poorest Americans are getting far better medical services than many Cubans.”

Thompson supports the U.S. embargo on Cuba and voted in favor of the Cuba Sanctions Bills of 1995 and 1996.

Thompson came under fire in July 2007 for suggesting that Cuban immigrants are a potential terrorist threat. “I don't imagine they're coming here to bring greetings from Castro. We're living in the era of the suitcase bomb,” Thompson said.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 22, 2008.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Tommy Thompson’s stance on this issue is unknown.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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