TALLAHASSEE — President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba is giving the five Republican candidates running for the U.S. Senate a chance to brandish their anti-Castro credentials, blast the president's foreign policy approach and take a few swipes at one another.
In the days before Obama leaves for the three-day trip, each of the leading Republicans has repeated their criticism that Obama has failed to extract enough in return from the Castro administration. But don't think that means they are in lockstep on Cuba strategy.
In Tampa on Friday, U.S. Rep. David Jolly restated his opposition to Obama visiting Cuba, but made clear he supports easing travel restrictions with the nation as a way to test the convictions of Cuban leader Ramon Castro.
"The more travel expands, the more economic enrichment happens on the island," Jolly, R-Indian Shores, said at a meeting of Tampa Tiger Bay Club. "Let's watch what Castro does with that economic enrichment. Does he do it to lift people up out of poverty and ensure a free economy for his people… or to empower his regime? That would be the ultimate test."
That's a "naive approach" Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera, a Miami Republican, said in a separate interview Friday. He said the Castros have an "iron fisted grip on every aspect of life on the island." He said increasing travel only leads to more money for the dictatorship and emboldens the regime.
"The embargo stands for, and should continue to stand for, human rights and freedom," said Lopez-Cantera, the son of Cuban refugees. He said the embargo needs to stay in place until the Castros no longer control the island.
He's not the only Cuban-American in the race. Manatee County home builder Carlos Beruff has been forced to defend himself over a 2014 Bradenton Herald story in which Beruff appears to applaud the easing of sanctions against Cuba. He said in the article that there was no reason for the nations to remain locked in an embargo, least of all over the oft-cited issue of human rights issues.
"If human rights are the only reason we're not doing business with Cuba, then we're doing business with a lot of countries we shouldn't be doing business with," he said then.
Beruff now says those comments have to be taken in context. In an interview, he said he still believes Cuba would benefit from more U.S. interaction, but only under the right deal.
"If we could negotiate a deal that makes sense then it would be time get rid of the embargo," Beruff said.
Lopez-Cantera didn't mention Beruff by name, but said he was a better voice on Cuba because he's never had two positions on it.
Todd Wilcox, a businessman in the Senate race, said that after more than 50 years, the embargo has not worked and he would be open to new ways to influence change in Cuba, though just not under the terms Obama has negotiated.
"Now, some modification might work," Wilcox said about the embargo. "I agree that cultural engagement will help… but to lift it outright? No, I would not vote to lift it outright."
Others in the race defend the embargo and oppose any modifications. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, said the embargo has limited the Castro's influence in the world and it needs to remain.
"It has kept them more in the box," said DeSantis, who noted that in Congress he is on a foreign affairs subcommittee that has spent hours working on Cuba issues.
Since Obama announced on Dec. 17, 2014 that he was using executive action to improve ties with Cuba, public polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans agree with him. But recent polling shows Republican voters in Florida are more reluctant. A Washington Post-Univision poll of 450 Republican voters released earlier this month showed only 33 percent approved of Obama visiting Cuba. When the same question was asked of Democratic voters, 87 percent approved.
The Republicans are running in an Aug. 30 GOP primary to determine who will replace Marco Rubio in the Senate.
Times correspondent William March contributed to this report. Contact Jeremy Wallace at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.