MIAMI Florida Democrat Charlie Crist is exploring a possible trip to Cuba this summer as part of his campaign to win the state's governorship, in a move his supporters call bold but detractors say would be a betrayal of Miami's large Cuban exile population.
The trip's feasibility is still being vetted, according to a campaign source, noting that travel to Cuba is restricted by U.S. law.
Crist surprised observers in February during an HBO interview with political commentator and satirist Bill Maher when he said he favored ending Washington's 52-year-old trade embargo against the communist-run island.
"The embargo's been going on what, 50 years now, and I don't think it worked. It is obvious to me we need to move forward and get the embargo taken away," he told Maher.
State governors have no authority over U.S. foreign policy, but Crist's stand could undermine political support for the embargo, especially if he wins in November.
Lifting the embargo would take an act of Congress and supporters say it should not be removed until Cuba's one-party political system is abolished.
Opponents, including an increasing number of Cuban Americans and some dissidents in Cuba, argue that the island's communist rulers have used the embargo as an excuse for its economic woes, and a justification for tight control on political freedoms.
Setting foot in Cuba has been off limits for most Florida politicians, though Kathy Castor, a Democratic congresswoman for Tampa, made a fact-finding trip to the island last year.
Public opinion in the state has shifted enough in recent years that Democratic party activist Alejandro Miyar, said "the idea of engaging Cuba is less of a third rail in Florida politics than ever before."
Miyar, 33, who is the son of Cuban exiles, said Crist's trip "shows a lot of courage and conviction to engage an issue that has been traditionally difficult for Florida politicians."
But the re-election campaign of incumbent Florida Governor Rick Scott was quick to jump on the Cuba trip.
"It just reflects Charlie Crist's ignorance about what is happening on the island and the history of the last 60 years," Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera told Reuters.
Lopez-Cantera, 40, who is also the son of Cuban exiles, said the proposed trip was "a tremendous insult" to Cuban Americans who had voted in the past for Crist, a former Republican governor of the state who switched parties last year.
"He keeps evolving and devolving. Maybe he's going down there to explore becoming a communist," Lopez-Cantera added.
Recent polls have shown steadily weakening support for hardline U.S.-Cuba policy. An Atlantic Council poll in February showed a strong majority of Americans supported normalizing relations with Cuba. Cuban Americans have been visiting the island in record numbers after the Obama administration lifted travel restrictions for exile family visits in 2009.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)