MIAMI — In a speech marking Cuba's independence day, Sen. John McCain told a cheering crowd of supporters Tuesday that if elected president he would "not passively await" the arrival of democracy in Cuba.
Nor would he sit down with Cuban President Raul Castro until Cuba emptied its jails of political prisoners and held free and fair elections, he said in Miami.
"Make no mistake, Cuba is destined to be free," he said, drawing chants of "libertad, libertad" from the crowd of 400.
There was little new in what McCain said, except he pledged that he would "vigorously prosecute" Cuban officials found to be involved in the shoot-down in 1996 of two civilian planes off the coast of Cuba. That won him a standing ovation, but some Republican activists noted that the Justice Department had already investigated the incident and brought no charges.
On the Cuban embargo: Distancing himself from his Democratic rivals, Sen. Barack Obama in particular, the presumptive Republican nominee said he stood behind the four-decades-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, including recent efforts by the Bush administration to tighten it.
While Obama has pledged to lift restrictions on Cuban families traveling to the island and sending money to relatives, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton has joined McCain in declining to amend the embargo until there are greater signs of political change in Cuba.
On Free Trade: McCain also used the free trade debate to jab Obama and Clinton for their decision not to support a treaty with Colombia, which he said would lift $1-billion in tariffs on U.S. exports. "Delaying approval will not create one more U.S. job," he said.
McCain pointed out that Colombia is Florida's fifth-largest trading partner, shipping $2.1-billion in exports last year.
On Guantanamo: Reminding the audience that some of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were among "the most evil people" on the planet, he said they deserved to have trials and should be moved out of Guantanamo to Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
On his Democratic opponents: McCain accused Obama of wanting "to sit down unconditionally" with Castro. "This step would send the worst possible message" to the Cuban government, he said.
Obama told CNN that McCain was distorting his position and said he would try to lay ground rules for such a meeting.
On energy: When Jose Fuentes, 74, asked McCain about gas prices, he spoke of the need to find new sources of energy such as solar and wind, as well as ethanol from sugar cane.
Afterward Fuentes described McCain's answer as "so-so," saying he was disappointed not to hear any mention of drilling for oil in Alaska. Fuentes was surprised to learn that McCain voted against drilling in Alaska in 2005 and has reiterated his opposition in recent interviews.
What he didn't say: McCain avoided any reference to immigration reform. His support of creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has put him at odds with some members of his party.
"I love John McCain, but that hurts," said Jennifer Wilson, 27, a third-generation Cuban who owns a printing firm.
"My grandparents came to this country legally and there's no reason why other people should be allowed to break the law," she added, saying she opposed McCain's immigration policy. However, she said she was prepared to bury those differences because of McCain's support for the war. "The war on terror is the most important issue right now. It's a matter of saving Western civilization."
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