As Fla. looms, Clinton pivots on Cuba

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has sent out mixed messages on Cuba policy in a bid to appeal to a critical Floridian voting bloc that is fractured over how to handle the Castro regime.

The New York senator has largely taken a hard-line approach against the regime, making the issue one of the sharpest policy differences between her and Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNew Hampshire Rep. Kuster endorses Buttigieg Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall Ray LaHood backs Biden for president MORE (D-Ill.). Although she is a staunch critic of nearly every aspect of President Bush’s foreign policy, Clinton backs his current policy towards Cuba and has won support from some of the toughest congressional critics of Fidel Castro.

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However, even as she calls for current policies on Cuba to be maintained, she has broken with the Bush administration’s position on travel to Cuba by signaling a willingness to ease restrictions on Americans visiting family members there.

In 2003 and 2005, she voted for amendments offered by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to ease restrictions on family travel imposed by the Bush administration. Similarly, in a questionnaire released last week by the Cuban American National Foundation, Clinton said she does not support restrictions on family travel.

But in an accompanying statement with the questionnaire, Clinton again signaled a hard line and support for Bush’s policies. She said that now is “not the time to consider wholesale or broad changes to our Cuba policy.”

Similarly, in a statement last year Clinton said, “Until it is clear what type of policies might come with a new [Cuban] government, we cannot talk about changes in the U.S. policies toward Cuba.”

Philippe Reines, a spokesman for Clinton, says the senator’s positions have been consistent, and her call to maintain Bush policies refers to the “broader” U.S. embargo on tourism and trade in Cuba, “not the narrow exception of humanitarian family visits.”

“Sen. Clinton has long and consistently supported humanitarian family travel — which is exactly what Sen. Dorgan’s amendment addresses,” Reines said.{mospagebreak}

Some analysts say Clinton’s position shows that she is trying to appeal to both sides of the debate.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFormer Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' NYT: Justice investigating alleged Comey leak of years-old classified info New Hampshire state lawmaker switches support from Warren to Klobuchar MORE has clearly changed her position regarding the Bush administration’s restrictions on Cuban-American visits to family members on the island,” said Robert Muse, a Washington-based attorney and an expert on U.S. policy towards Cuba.

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“To me, it’s pretty plain that it is a position that she’s taken because she’s made a political calculation that it is going to work for her with at least one segment of the Cuban community,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

Under 2004 Bush rules, Cuban-Americans are allowed to visit the island just once every three years and send quarterly remittances of up to $300 per household for immediate family members. Before the rules, Americans could visit the island once a year and send as much as $3,000.

Bush’s rules were widely viewed as an effort to appease hard-line Cubans in Florida during his 2004 reelection campaign. Supporters of the restrictions say financial aid in the country would help bankroll the Castro regime, but critics say sending remittances to Cuba would fuel a grassroots movement and show that the Castro regime cannot control people’s necessities.

The issue of U.S. policy towards Cuba has been overshadowed in the nominating contest for Democrats since they have largely stayed out of Florida — the home of more than 1 million Cubans.

Despite a threat from the Democratic National Committee to strip Florida of its delegates for moving up its primary date to Tuesday, Clinton is angling for a win there to blunt the impact of Obama’s resounding victory last Saturday in South Carolina.{mospagebreak}

Regardless of what happens Tuesday, how the candidates position themselves on the issue will be important given Florida’s pivotal position in the general election.

With Castro in poor health and the Cuban-American population growing more diverse, the politics of courting the vote in the U.S. are changing. Younger Cubans have increasingly taken a softer approach than older and more staunchly anti-Castro Cubans, according to polls.

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Hard-line positions for Democrats — like the one Democratic candidate Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreNH Democratic Party chairman rips Bloomberg op-ed as 'desperate for some press attention' It's time to provide needed reform to the organ donation system On The Trail: History is not on Biden's side MORE took in 2000 during the emotional Elian Gonzales saga — are unlikely to woo Cuban Republicans or appeal to the younger generation, some strategists say.

“I think the same way that the Castro regime is coming to its biological conclusion, the Cuban population is coming to a generational change,” said Joe GarciaJose (Joe) Antonio GarciaOvernight Defense: Biden honors McCain at Phoenix memorial service | US considers sending captured ISIS fighters to Gitmo and Iraq | Senators press Trump on ending Yemen civil war Biden pays tribute to McCain at emotional memorial service Mueller indictments: Congressional candidate asked Russian operatives for info on opponent MORE, director of the Hispanic Strategy Center at the New Democrat Network, a think tank. “And that’s reflected in this election.”

Obama’s position likely would be more appealing to younger Cubans, some say. The senator has signaled a willingness to ease the trade embargo if Cuba takes steps toward democracy as well as meet with Castro in his first year in office.

Also breaking from Clinton, Obama has voted against U.S. funding for TV Marti, a television station that transmits pro-American views on Cuban airwaves, and is open to negotiating with Raul Castro after the death of his brother Fidel.

But Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDem senators say Iran threat to embassies not mentioned in intelligence briefing Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers Democrats 'utterly unpersuaded' by evidence behind Soleimani strike MORE (D-N.J.), a Cuban-American who is playing an active role in Clinton’s campaign, said the overwhelming position among Cuban voters is consistent with Clinton’s approach.

“The difficulty is that you cannot be heard on those issues if you start off with what they believe is the wrong position on Cuba policy,” Menendez said. The senator said Clinton was not being inconsistent in her approach to family travel and her overall position on Cuba policy.