In the city where Cuba embargo once was sacred, Hillary Clinton calls for it to end

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks before the National Urban League, Friday, July 31, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks before the National Urban League, Friday, July 31, 2015, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

In her first campaign trip to Florida, Hillary Clinton called on Congress to end the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo, saying that it has served only to fortify the dictatorship on the island.

Clinton, who conceded that she once supported the embargo, said in a speech at Florida International University near Miami that the embargo has kept the people of the island isolated, and that it was time to remove trade and travel restrictions.

The Democratic presidential favorite said an open economic relationship would do more to bring "dignity and democracy" to the island nation than continuing the hardline isolationism that lasted through five decades of Republican and Democratic administrations, including her husband's two terms.

President Barack Obama has normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba and has called for Congress to lift the economic embargo, as well.

Clinton acknowledged that she previously supported sanctions in Cuba, but she told an auditorium of students, faculty and others at Florida International University that she changed her views during four years as Obama's secretary of state. During that time, there also has been a softening of public opinion among the million-plus Cuban-Americans who hold considerable sway in Florida voting.

Clinton accused Republican presidential candidates — without calling them by name — of approaching Cuba and Latin America "through a Cold War prism."

"They have it backwards: Engagement is not a gift to the Castros; it's a threat to the Castros," Clinton said. "An American embassy in Havana isn't a concession; it's a beacon. Lifting the embargo doesn't set back freedom; it advances freedom."

She framed their stance on the embargo as part of broader foreign affairs errors.

She didn't name any Republican presidential contenders, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both from South Florida and vocal critics of Obama's December decision to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

But she said, "We cannot afford to let out-of-touch, out-of- date, partisan ideas and candidates rip away all the progress we've made."

Bush, who earlier shared a stage with Clinton at a National Urban League conference in nearby Fort Lauderdale, embraced their disagreement, saying it was "insulting to many residents of Miami for Hillary Clinton to come here to endorse a retreat in the struggle for democracy in Cuba."

Rubio had pre-emptively criticized Clinton, issuing a statement before her speech. "President Obama and Secretary Clinton must learn that appeasement only emboldens dictators and repressive governments and weakens America's global standing in the 21st century," he said.

Supporters of lifting the embargo praised Clinton.

“We welcome Senator Clinton’s call to end the embargo," said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, which favors diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. "It is representative of a growing consensus across party lines that it’s time for Congress to allow Americans to travel and our businesses to compete in Cuba."

"Putting our foreign policy in the hands of the Cuban government only holds back change on the island, makes it harder to support civil society and slows us down in strengthening Cuba’s growing entrepreneurial sector. It’s time to end the embargo, now, and let Americans do what they do best.”

U.S.-Cuba relations have long been a flashpoint in Florida politics. The generations of Cuban-Americans who were born in Cuba and fled shortly after the Castro-led revolution in the late 1950s generally supported a hard line, including the embargo that keeps American businesses from trading with Cuba and blocks Americans from traveling in the country and spending money there as tourists.

For decades, South Florida politicians and presidential candidates vying for the state's electoral votes reflected those views, regardless of party. Clinton's husband was among them, even as he quietly attempted to engage Fidel Castro in the 1990s.

Now, says Florida pollster Fernand Amandi, an expert on Cuban-American public opinion, that once solid voting bloc is "a community in transition," giving Clinton an opening.

U.S.-born Cuban-Americans, Amandi said, are consistently more supportive of normalized relations than their Cuban-born parents and also are less likely to consider themselves one-issue voters. "The younger generations are more like any other immigrants — they care about pocketbook issues, jobs, their kids' educations," he said.

In addition, Cuba-born immigrants in the past few decades "lived under the sanctions and concluded that it just emboldened the Castro regime," he said. "So I think after 55 years of failure, it's time for something else."

Beyond the Cuban-American community, a majority of adults in the U.S. support normalizing relations with Cuba. A Pew Research Center survey conducted July 14-20 found that nearly 73 percent of Americans approve of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, while 72 percent support ending the trade embargo, both double-digit percentage increases from January, immediately after Obama's decision.

Pew found the same trends though lower numbers among Republicans, with 56 percent of such voters backing a diplomatic bond and 59 percent supporting an economic relationship.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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