MIAMI, Florida - If elected, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said on Friday he would undo President Barack Obama's moves to normalize relations with Cuba unless its leaders allowed political and religious freedoms.
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order — which means the next president can reverse them," Trump told a rally in dowtown Miami, drawing cheers from a largely Cuban American audience of about 2,500 people.
"And that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands ... those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people, and the freeing of political prisoners,” he added.
Cuba's political system, run by the ruling Communist Party, does not allow other parties to legally exist or compete in elections. However, it has in recent years relaxed religious restrictions on the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths.
Trump's words appeared to mark a change in his previously stated opinion of Obama's new Cuba policy which he backed during the primary contest. Trump has also in the past criticized the 50-year-old embargo against Cuba, which is strongly supported by Cuban American Republicans.
In a Miami Herald interview last month Trump offered only muted criticism of Obama's Cuba policy saying it was "fine" to pursue better ties with Cuba though he called for a “stronger” deal.
Trump told the Miami Herald that he had yet to formulate his own Cuba policy and planned to sit down with Cuban leaders, something he may do as early as next week, according to three sources close to the campaign who spoke to Univision.
With only 53 days left before the Nov 8 election, Trump's hastily-arranged visit was clearly designed to appeal to South Florida's large community of Cuban Americans who have a long tradition of supporting the Republican Party.
The United States and Cuba agreed in December 2014 to begin efforts to normalize relations after a 53-year break. Diplomatic relations were restored in July 2015 and in March Obama made the first official visit to Havana by an American president in 80 years.
Any suggestion of returning to the old hardline on Cuba risks alienating many Cuban Americans who polls show have largely embraced Obama's efforts at reconciliation with Washington's former Cold War foe.
Trump has the backing of 45% of Cuban-Americans, according to a poll conducted by Bendixen & Amandi for Univision, released this week. While that exceeds the 29% he gets among Hispancs statewide, it is far less than the level historically obtained by Republican presidential candidates in the past.
Analysts say Trump needs Florida's 29 electoral votes to have any chance of winning the presidency. Polls show Trump is neck and neck with his Democrat rival, Hillary Clinton in the state where Hispanics account for 15% of registered voters.
Vote-rich South Florida includes the state's most populous county, Miami-Dade, a Democratic stronghold, with 1.3 million of the 12.3 million registered voters in Florida.
"I think we will see much more of him (Trump) here in the 53 days remaining until the vote," predicted Fernand Amandi, co-director of the Bendixen & Amando polling firm.
The Cuban exile community is deeply divided these days over Cuba policy, with a majority supporting Obama's thaw in relations. Obama's health reform,
The loyalty of Cuban Americans to Republicans stems from a long-standing perception of the party's tougher opposition to the communist government on the island. "Many older Cuban Americans are going to vote until the death for the Republican Party," said Amandi. However, newcomers and those born here, have tended to lean more Democrat.
Trump has in the past criticized the 50-year-old embargo against Cuba, which is strongly supported by Cuban American Republicans.
Trump still has a lot of work to do win over Cuban American leaders. Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who is Cuban American, has only supported him reluctantly, while others, including Cuban American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, are fierce critics who have said they will not vote for him.
Trump offered less strident words on Friday about the ongoing political and economic turmoil in Venezuela where that country's socialist government is facing widespread opposition protests.
He also vowed to repeal Obama's signature healthcare reform, known as Obamacare, which is also popular among poorer Cuban Americans who grew up with socialized medicine in Cuba.