Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. I want to thank Dr. Frank Mora, director of the Kimberly Latin American and Caribbean Center and a professor here at FIU, and before that served with distinction at the Department of Defense. I want to recognize former Congressman Joe Garcia. Thank you Joe for being here—a long-time friend and an exemplary educator. The President of Miami-Dade College, Eduardo Padrón and the President of FIU, Mark Rosenberg—I thank you all for being here. And for me it's a delight to be here at Florida International University. You can feel the energy here. It's a place where people of all backgrounds and walks of life work hard, do their part, and get ahead. That's the promise of America that has drawn generations of immigrants to our shores, and it's a reality right here at FIU.
Today, as Frank said, I want to talk with you about a subject that has stirred passionate debate in this city and beyond for decades, but is now entering a crucial new phase. America's approach to Cuba is at a crossroads, and the upcoming presidential election will determine whether we chart a new path forward or turn back to the old ways of the past. We must decide between engagement and embargo, between embracing fresh thinking and returning to Cold War deadlock. And the choices we make will have lasting consequences not just for more than 11 million Cubans, but also for American leadership across our hemisphere and around the world.
I know that for many in this room and throughout the Cuban American community, this debate is not an intellectual exercise—it is deeply personal.
I teared up as Frank was talking about his mother—not able to mourn with her family, say goodbye to her brother. I'm so privileged to have a sister-in-law who is Cuban American, who came to this country, like so many others as a child and has charted her way with a spirit of determination and success.
I think about all those who were sent as children to live with strangers during the Peter Pan airlift, for families who arrived here during the Mariel boatlift with only the clothes on their backs, for sons and daughters who could not bury their parents back home, for all who have suffered and waited and longed for change to come to the land, "where palm trees grow." And, yes, for a rising generation eager to build a new and better future.
Many of you have your own stories and memories that shape your feelings about the way forward. Like Miriam Leiva, one of the founders of the Ladies in White, who is with us today—brave Cuban women who have defied the Castro regime and demanded dignity and reform. We are honored to have her here today and I'd like to ask her, please raise your hand. Thank you.
I wish every Cuban back in Cuba could spend a day walking around Miami and see what you have built here, how you have turned this city into a dynamic global city. How you have succeeded as entrepreneurs and civic leaders. It would not take them long to start demanding similar opportunities and achieving similar success back in Cuba.
I understand the skepticism in this community about any policy of engagement toward Cuba. As many of you know, I've been skeptical too. But you've been promised progress for fifty years. And we can't wait any longer for a failed policy to bear fruit. We have to seize this moment. We have to now support change on an island where it is desperately needed.
I did not come to this position lightly. I well remember what happened to previous attempts at engagement. In the 1990s, Castro responded to quiet diplomacy by shooting down the unarmed Brothers to the Rescue plane out of the sky. And with their deaths in mind, I supported the Helms-Burton Act to tighten the embargo.
Twenty years later, the regime's human rights abuses continue: imprisoning dissidents, cracking down on free expression and the Internet, beating and harassing the courageous Ladies in White, refusing a credible investigation into the death of Oswaldo Paya. Anyone who thinks we can trust this regime hasn't learned the lessons of history.
But as secretary of state, it became clear to me that our policy of isolating Cuba was strengthening the Castros' grip on power rather than weakening it—and harming our broader efforts to restore American leadership across the hemisphere. The Castros were able to blame all of the island's woes on the U.S. embargo, distracting from the regime's failures and delaying their day of reckoning with the Cuban people. We were unintentionally helping the regime keep Cuba a closed and controlled society rather than working to open it up to positive outside influences the way we did so effectively with the old Soviet bloc and elsewhere.
So in 2009, we tried something new. The Obama administration made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit and send money to family on the island. No one expected miracles, but it was a first step toward exposing the Cuban people to new ideas, values, and perspectives.
I remember seeing a CNN report that summer about a Cuban father living and working in the United States who hadn't seen his baby boy back home for a year-and-a-half because of travel restrictions. Our reforms made it possible for that father and son finally to reunite. It was just one story, just one family, but it felt like the start of something important.
In 2011, we further loosened restrictions on cash remittances sent back to Cuba and we opened the way for more Americans—clergy, students and teachers, community leaders—to visit and engage directly with the Cuban people. They brought with them new hope and support for struggling families, aspiring entrepreneurs, and brave civil society activists. Small businesses started opening. Cell phones proliferated. Slowly, Cubans were getting a taste of a different future.
I then became convinced that building stronger ties between Cubans and Americans could be the best way to promote political and economic change on the island. So by the end of my term as Secretary, I recommended to the President that we end the failed embargo and double down on a strategy of engagement that would strip the Castro regime of its excuses and force it to grapple with the demands and aspirations of the Cuban people. Instead of keeping change out, as it has for decades, the regime would have to figure out how to adapt to a rapidly transforming society.
What's more, it would open exciting new business opportunities for American companies, farmers, and entrepreneurs—especially for the Cuban-American community. That's my definition of a win-win.
Now I know some critics of this approach point to other countries that remain authoritarian despite decades of diplomatic and economic engagement. And yes it's true that political change will not come quickly or easily to Cuba. But look around the world at many of the countries that have made the transition from autocracy to democracy—from Eastern Europe to East Asia to Latin America. Engagement is not a silver bullet, but again and again we see that it is more likely to hasten change, not hold it back.
The future for Cuba is not foreordained. But there is good reason to believe that once it gets going, this dynamic will be especially powerful on an island just 90 miles from the largest economy in the world. Just 90 miles away from one and a half million Cuban Americans whose success provides a compelling advertisement for the benefits of democracy and an open society.
So I have supported President Obama and Secretary Kerry as they've advanced this strategy. They've taken historic steps forward—re-establishing diplomatic relations, reopening our embassy in Havana, expanding opportunities further for travel and commerce, calling on Congress to finally drop the embargo.
That last step about the embargo is crucial, because without dropping it, this progress could falter.
We have arrived at a decisive moment. The Cuban people have waited long enough for progress to come. Even many Republicans on Capitol Hill are starting to recognize the urgency of moving forward. It's time for their leaders to either get on board or get out of the way. The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all. We should replace it with a smarter approach that empowers Cuban businesses, Cuban civil society, and the Cuban American community to spur progress and keep pressure on the regime.
Today I am calling on Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell to step up and answer the pleas of the Cuban people. By large majorities, they want a closer relationship with America.
They want to buy our goods, read our books, surf our web, and learn from our people. They want to bring their country into the 21st century. That is the road toward democracy and dignity and we should walk it together.
We can't go back to a failed policy that limits Cuban Americans' ability to travel and support family and friends. We can't block American businesses that could help free enterprise take root in Cuban soil—or stop American religious groups and academics and activists from establishing contacts and partnerships on the ground.
If we go backward, no one will benefit more than the hardliners in Havana. In fact, there may be no stronger argument for engagement than the fact that Cuba's hardliners are so opposed to it. They don't want strong connections with the United States. They don't want Cuban Americans traveling to the island. They don't want American students and clergy and NGO activists interacting with the Cuban people. That is the last thing they want. So that's precisely why we need to do it.
Unfortunately, most of the Republican candidates for President would play right into the hard-liners' hands. They would reverse the progress we have made and cut the Cuban people off from direct contact with the Cuban American community and the free-market capitalism and democracy that you embody. That would be a strategic error for the United States and a tragedy for the millions of Cubans who yearn for closer ties.
They have it backwards: Engagement is not a gift to the Castros—it's a threat to the Castros. An American embassy in Havana isn't a concession—it's a beacon. Lifting the embargo doesn't set back the advance of freedom—it advances freedom where it is most desperately needed.
Fundamentally, most Republican candidates still view Cuba—and Latin America more broadly—through an outdated Cold War lens. Instead of opportunities to be seized, they see only threats to be feared. They refuse to learn the lessons of the past or pay attention to what's worked and what hasn't. For them, ideology trumps evidence. And so they remain incapable of moving us forward.
As President, I would increase American influence in Cuba, rather than reduce it. I would work with Congress to lift the embargo and I would also pursue additional steps.
First, we should help more Americans go to Cuba. If Congress won't act to do this, I would use executive authority to make it easier for more Americans to visit the island to support private business and engage with the Cuban people.
Second, I would use our new presence and connections to more effectively support human rights and civil society in Cuba. I believe that as our influence expands among the Cuban people, our diplomacy can help carve out political space on the island in a way we never could before.
We will follow the lead of Pope Francis, who will carry a powerful message of empowerment when he visits Cuba in September. I would direct U.S. diplomats to make it a priority to build relationships with more Cubans, especially those starting businesses and pushing boundaries. Advocates for women's rights and workers' rights. Environmental activists. Artists. Bloggers. The more relationships we build, the better.
We should be under no illusions that the regime will end its repressive ways any time soon, as its continued use of short-term detentions demonstrates. So we have to redouble our efforts to stand up for the rights of reformers and political prisoners, including maintaining sanctions on specific human-rights violators. We should maintain restrictions on the flow of arms to the regime—and work to restrict access to the tools of repression while expanding access to tools of dissent and free expression. We should make it clear, as I did as secretary of state, that the "freedom to connect" is a basic human right, and therefore do more to extend that freedom to more and more Cubans—particularly young people.
Third, and this is directly related, we should focus on expanding communications and commercial links to and among the Cuban people. Just five percent of Cubans have access to the open Internet today. We want more American companies pursuing joint ventures to build networks that will open the free flow of information—and empower everyday Cubans to make their voices heard. We want Cubans to have access to more phones, more computers, more satellite televisions. We want more American airplanes and ferries and cargo ships arriving every day. I'm told that Airbnb is already getting started. Companies like Google and Twitter are exploring opportunities as well.
It will be essential that American and international companies entering the Cuban market act responsibly, hold themselves to high standards, use their influence to push for reforms. I would convene and connect U.S. business leaders from many fields to advance this strategy, and I will look to the Cuban American community to continue leading the way. No one is better positioned to bring expertise, resources, and vision to this effort—and no one understands better how transformative this can be.
We will also keep pressing for a just settlement on expropriated property. And we will let Raul explain to his people why he wants to prevent American investment in bicycle repair shops, in restaurants, in barbershops, and Internet cafes. Let him try to put up barriers to American technology and innovation that his people crave.
Finally, we need to use our leadership across the Americas to mobilize more support for Cubans and their aspirations. Just as the United States needed a new approach to Cuba, the region does as well.
Latin American countries and leaders have run out of excuses for not standing up for the fundamental freedoms of the Cuban people. No more brushing things under the rug. No more apologizing. It is time for them to step up. Not insignificantly, new regional cooperation on Cuba will also open other opportunities for the United States across Latin America.
For years, our unpopular policy towards Cuba held back our influence and leadership. Frankly, it was an albatross around our necks. We were isolated in our opposition to opening up the island. Summit meetings were consumed by the same old debates. Regional spoilers like Venezuela took advantage of the disagreements to advance their own agendas and undermine the United States. Now we have the chance for a fresh start in the Americas.
Strategically, this is a big deal. Too often, we look east, we look west, but we don't look south. And no region in the world is more important to our long-term prosperity and security than Latin America. And no region in the world is better positioned to emerge as a new force for global peace and progress.
Many Republicans seem to think of Latin America still as a land of crime and coups rather than a place where free markets and free people are thriving. They've got it wrong. Latin America is now home to vibrant democracies, expanding middle classes, abundant energy supplies, and a combined GDP of more than $4 trillion.
Our economies, communities, and even our families are deeply entwined. And I see our increasing interdependence as a comparative advantage to be embraced. The United States needs to build on what I call the "power of proximity." It's not just geography—it's common values, common culture, common heritage. It's shared interests that could power a new era of partnership and prosperity. Closer ties across Latin America will help our economy at home and strengthen our hand around the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific. There is enormous potential for cooperation on clean energy and combating climate change.
And much work to be done together to take on the persistent challenges in our hemisphere, from crime to drugs to poverty, and to stand in defense of our shared values against regimes like that in Venezuela. So the United States needs to lead in the Latin America. And if we don't, make no mistake, others will. China is eager to extend its influence. Strong, principled American leadership is the only answer. That was my approach as Secretary of State and will be my priority as President.
Now it is often said that every election is about the future. But this time, I feel it even more powerfully. Americans have worked so hard to climb out of the hole we found ourselves in with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in 2008. Families took second jobs and second shifts. They found a way to make it work. And now, thankfully, our economy is growing again.
Slowly but surely we also repaired America's tarnished reputation. We strengthened old alliances and started new partnerships. We got back to the time-tested values that made our country a beacon of hope and opportunity and freedom for the entire world. We learned to lead in new ways for a complex and changing age. And America is safer and stronger as a result.
We cannot afford to let out-of-touch, out-of-date partisan ideas and candidates rip away all the progress we've made. We can't go back to cowboy diplomacy and reckless war-mongering. We can't go back to a go-it-alone foreign policy that views American boots on the ground as a first choice rather than as a last resort. We have paid too high a price in lives, power, and prestige to make those same mistakes again. Instead we need a foreign policy for the future with creative, confident leadership that harnesses all of America's strength, smarts, and values. I believe the future holds far more opportunities than threats if we shape global events rather than reacting to them and being shaped by them. That is what I will do as President, starting right here in our own hemisphere.
I'm running to build an America for tomorrow, not yesterday. For the struggling, the striving, and the successful. For the young entrepreneur in Little Havana who dreams of expanding to Old Havana. For the grandmother who never lost hope of seeing freedom come to the homeland she left so long ago. For the families who are separated. For all those who have built new lives in a new land. I'm running for everyone who's ever been knocked down, but refused to be knocked out. I am running for you and I want to work with you to be your partner to build the kind of future that will once again not only make Cuban Americans successful here in our country, but give Cubans in Cuba the same chance to live up to their own potential.
Thank you all very, very much.