MIAMI — Visiting Cuban-Americans in Miami a decade and a half ago, Donald Trump declared Fidel Castro a "killer" and a "criminal" who shouldn't be "rewarded."
Now he has come up in support, albeit a little tepid, of President Barack Obama's push for closer ties between the United States and Cuba — a policy Trump characterized as "fine."
In an interview published Monday, Trump briefly responded to a single question on his thoughts on the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations: "Do you think that is a good policy, or do you oppose America's opening with Cuba?" asked the Daily Caller, a conservative-leaning Washington, D.C., publication.
"I think it's fine," Trump said. "I think it's fine, but we should have made a better deal. The concept of opening with Cuba — 50 years is enough — the concept of opening with Cuba is fine. I think we should have made a stronger deal."
There was no follow-up question in the published interview. Trump's campaign did not respond to a request from the Miami Herald for further details.
The 2016 Republican presidential frontrunner is only the second GOP contender to endorse the Obama Cuba policy, after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Miami's two hometown candidates, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, have been among its loudest critics. So has Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who like Rubio is Cuban-American.
For Trump, his latest comments are markedly different from ones he's made in the past on how the United States should deal with Castro regime.
In 1999, as he toyed with a presidential run as a Reform Party candidate, Trump published a Miami Herald editorial lambasting doing business with Cuba: "Yes, the embargo is costly. If I formed a joint venture with European partners, I would make millions of dollars. But I'd rather lose those millions than lose my self-respect."
The Cuban American National Foundation invited the real-estate tycoon to tour the Bay of Pigs Veterans' Library and Museum in Little Havana five months later. He boasted of rejecting the Cuba development deals and expounded on Castro.
"He's been a killer, he's a criminal and I don't think you should reward people who have done what he has done," Trump said.
At one point, the crowd cheered, "¡Viva Donald Trump!"
The Daily Caller didn't specifically ask Trump about the embargo. But Trump has softened or outright reversed his mind on other issues, such as abortion rights, which he backed and now opposes ("A woman has to have the choice," Trump said in the same 1999 Miami swing). Those flips have made him move closer to the Republican establishment. His endorsement of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement does the opposite, putting the candidate closer to Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state who came to Florida International University in July to trumpet Obama's policy. She said she would support lifting the embargo.
However, Trump appears to have little to lose. He's leading the field because of an outsider message that resonates with voters frustrated with politicians, not because of his adherence to GOP orthodoxy. Even in Miami-Dade County, where 73 percent of Republican voters are Hispanic — many of them of Cuban descent — there's little risk for Trump because a majority of those voters are probably already siding with Rubio or Bush.
And separate from party honchos, Trump seems more in line with Republican views, anyway. A Pew Research Center survey released in July found that 56 percent of Republican respondents favored Obama's Cuba policy, and 59 percent supported doing away with the embargo.