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Hillary Clinton to Congress: End the Cuban trade embargo

Democratic Presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the Presidential Candidates Plenary at the National Urban League conference in the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center on July 31, 2015 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton called Friday for the repeal of the Cuban trade embargo, telling Republican leaders in Congress, "Get on board or get out of the way."

"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," Clinton said during a speech at Florida International University in Miami, the heart of the Cuban-American community. "The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all."

"Today I am calling on [House] Speaker [John] Boehner and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to step up and answer the pleas of the Cuban people," she added. "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."

Clinton suggested the embargo, which has been in place for more than 50 years, should be replaced 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."

The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations began last December, when President Obama announced the beginning of a process to normalize relations between the two countries. In April, the State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror. And earlier this month, the countries formally opened embassies in each other's capital cities.

The steady rapprochement has drawn support from many Democrats and some Republicans, but others have suggested the U.S. is mistakenly empowering a regime that has shown no willingness to open up Cuba's society and economy.

"It's insulting to many residents of Miami for Hillary Clinton to come here to endorse a retreat in the struggle for democracy in Cuba," declared former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential candidate, in a statement responding to Clinton's speech. "This city has become a home and a refuge to thousands and thousands of Castro's victims. Secretary Clinton's call to abandon the embargo - and the principles of democracy and freedom for the Cuban people - in exchange for nothing in return from the regime in Havana adds insult to the pain they and their families feel."

Clinton said Friday that she understands the "skepticism" many Cuban-Americans feel about "any policy of engagement toward Cuba."

"As many of you know, I've been skeptical too," she said. "But you've been promised progress for 50 years, and we can't wait any longer for a failed policy to bear fruit. We have to seize this moment."

She recalled an incident in 1996, during her husband Bill Clinton's presidency, when the Castro regime shot down two aid group airplanes over international water. The attack lit a firestorm in Congress, giving birth to the Helms-Burton Act, which entrenched the embargo by enshrining it in federal statute.

Clinton said she supported the Helms-Burton Act at the time to "tighten the embargo," but in the years since, it's become clear to her that a policy of isolation was only "strengthening the Castros' grip on power."

"We were unintentionally helping the regime keep Cuba a closed and controlled society," she said. And she warned that the GOP's roster of presidential candidates would "play right into the hard-liners' hands" by halting U.S. efforts to reach out.

She pledged to use her executive authority to permit more Americans to travel to Cuba, if Congress proves unwilling to act.