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Democratic candidates for president tackle two Florida issues: Disaster relief and Cuba policy

In case the candidates don’t talk about Florida in the debates, they already shared some thoughts with us.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Mexico Beach remains in a suspended state of destruction on Sunday (12/9/18), two months after Hurricane Michael made landfall on October 10, 2018 near Mexico Beach, with top sustained winds of 155 mph.
Published Jun. 26

The wide field of Democratic presidential candidates have descended on Miami this week for two nights of debates. But how are they actually talking about Florida while here?

Climate change and the Trump administration’s immigration policies are well covered. But on many other issues uniquely important to the Sunshine State, it’s unlikely Floridians will hear much.

The Tampa Bay Times recently surveyed all the candidates, highlighting matters distinct to Florida that haven’t received much attention from the candidates. The survey included questions from Florida readers, and the full results can be found online.

KNOW THE CANDIDATES: We asked Democratic presidential candidates your questions. Now see their answers.

Here, let’s dig deeper into two topics: disaster relief after hurricanes and the trade embargo with Cuba

Disaster relief

Hurricane Michael exposed America’s growing vulnerability to disasters.

It took Congress and President Donald Trump 243 days to deliver aid to the Panhandle, where many of its residents are suffering the Florida summer in trailers, tents and houses missing walls.

“That is morally reprehensible,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said.

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A spokeswoman for Sen. Kamala Harris of California said the U.S. should “drastically increase funding for communities devastated by disasters.”

Some said it’s a matter of putting politics aside.

“I do not support pitting neighbor against neighbor for disaster relief,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. “As Americans, we provide help to everyone when a natural disaster hits, period.”

Others, like Inslee, see these disasters as part of the larger war on climate change. Without stabilizing earth’s warming, it won’t matter how much Congress puts into disaster relief; it will never be enough. Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for example, said she would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand of New York said Congress needs to pass the Green New Deal, a progressive proposal to drastically curb carbon emissions in the next 15 years and invest in more sustainable energy sources.

Most of the Democratic candidates have embraced at least some aspects of the Green New Deal. But even those who haven’t (former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has called the Green New Deal “unrealistic,”) agreed that addressing climate change is a critical piece of federal government’s response to future disasters.

Hickenlooper suggested rebuilding cities transformed by disaster “better than it was before, meaning more resilient to future natural disasters,” and reforming the National Flood Insurance Program. It covers 5 million homeowners and business owners located in flood zones, including nearly 1.8 million in Florida. It is more than $20 billion in debt to the federal treasury.


“Resiliency” is a buzzword among Democratic candidates. Former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he would increase by ten-fold pre-disaster mitigation grants that help local efforts to harden against storms. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg agreed.

“By investing our resources more effectively, we can both limit the damage caused by natural disasters,” Buttigieg said.

Cuba policy

Democratic presidential candidate traditionally tread lightly when it comes to navigating the thorny relationship with Cuba, careful not to upset the large exile population in the nation’s most important swing state. Not anymore.

Of the 15 candidates to respond to the Times, 12 unequivocally said the United States should end its Cuban trade embargo. Only 20 years, President Bill Clinton expanded the embargo to foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies.

MORE CUBA COVERAGE: Tampa Bay area starts to feel sting of Trump policies to reverse engagement with Cuba

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Democratic candidates now more closely align with President Barack Obama, who eased travel restrictions, engaged in diplomatic relations and even attended a baseball game with President Raul Castro.

California U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell said Obama was “on the right track.” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont through a spokesperson called the embargo “severely detrimental to American businesses and the Cuban people alike.”

Only Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey expressed significant reservations about reengaging with Cuba at all. He said the country’s “dismal record on rights ... must be addressed as part of any future U.S.-Cuba relationship.”

Buttigieg and Hicklenlooper were the two other candidates not to explicitly call to end the embargo. But Trump’s policies weren’t making it easier, Buttigieg said, “squandering the potential to make progress with the first post-Castro Cuban leadership in 60 years.”

Other candidates added conditions to their support for ending the embargo. Klobuchar spokeswoman Carlie Waibel, for example, said the senator wants to “turn the page ... while respecting human rights and property claims against the Cuban government.” The Trump administration recently moved to allow Americans who had property nationalized in Cuba to sue those now profiting from it.

RELATED: U.S. might allow lawsuits over U.S. properties nationalized in Cuba

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O’Rourke spokesperson Chris Evans said the U.S. posture toward Cuba has led to more harm than good.

“Beto believes our interventions in Latin America generally, whether it is Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, or El Salvador, have proved to be disastrous at every turn.” Evans said, “causing many of the problems we are seeing at the borders today.”


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