Posted on Sunday, 12.04.11
TRAVEL AND TRADE
Tampa business leaders hope to strengthen ties with Cuba
Since the first charter flights from Tampa to Cuba in nearly 50 years
began, business leaders have been reaching out to the island nation and
even invited Cuban diplomats to visit.
By MIMI WHITEFIELD
The first charter flight from Tampa International Airport to Cuba in
nearly 50 years took off Sept. 8 — the feast day of Our Lady of Charity
of Cobre, Cuba's patron saint — and since then, Tampa hasn't quite been
There has been a flurry of Cuba-related activity in the Tampa Bay area —
the likes of which would be hard to imagine in South Florida — starting
with the letter of friendly greetings that the Tampa City Council sent
to Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba's National Assembly.
Since charter service began, the president of the Greater Tampa Chamber
of Commerce says he's planning a trip to Cuba, there's been an
invitation extended to Cuban diplomats in Washington to visit Tampa
business leaders, the Tampa-based Florida Orchestra sent a contingent of
musicians to Cuba on a cultural exchange and the Tampa Port Authority
held a seminar on potential trade opportunities with the island.
Meanwhile, plans to try to position Tampa as the gateway for travel and
trade with Cuba gain momentum in the business community.
"We think Tampa is a perfect place as a gateway city to Cuba,'' says
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Bay Democrat who has championed lifting all
restrictions on travel to Cuba and lobbied hard for the Tampa charter
People traveling to Cuba could come to Tampa, she says, and take an
immersion course in Cuban history, learn Spanish and walk the narrow
brick streets of Ybor City, the Tampa neighborhood where Cuban patriot
José Martí rallied cigar workers to lend their support in the Cuban War
for Independence against Spain in the 1890s.
"Miami has great Cuban historical and cultural ties but Tampa Bay does,
too,'' she says.
For Castor, who also thinks the embargo has "outlived its usefulness,''
cementing Tampa's status as a gateway city is all about creating jobs,
especially for small businesses such as motels and hotels in Ybor City,
restaurants and shops. "The No. 1 issue is jobs and the economy in my
area,'' she says.
But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, says such efforts are misguided:
"I find it unfortunate when some look to partner with the Cuban regime
and place the value of dollars over the value of people. There are many
city officials and businesses throughout the U.S. who are advocating a
lifting of all travel restrictions but this goes far beyond humanitarian
family travel and would further enrich the Cuban tyranny.''
While there have been some dissenting voices in Tampa's long-established
Cuban community, Castor says most Cuban-Americans there are supportive
of increasing linkages with Cuba. "The Tampa Bay area is a little bit
different from Miami, and Tampa Bay Cubans are different from those who
came to Miami after Castro's revolution. They have different ties to the
island and are not quite as strident,'' she says.
"We have a long-standing history with Cuba that transcends what has
happened in Cuba over the past 50 years,'' says Tom Keating, president
and chief executive of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.
It dates back to 1886 when Vicente Martinez Ybor opened the first cigar
factory. Master cigar workers from Cuba and Key West settled in casitas,
or cottages, that surrounded the brick cigar factories, and at Martí's
urging, many pledged a day's salary per week in support of Cuban
Keating says the new flights to Cuba offer an opportunity to play up
Setting up the opening in travel was President Barack Obama's decision
in 2009 to allow unlimited travel to the island by Cuban Americans.
Then at the beginning of the year, he followed that by authorizing
people-to-people exchanges that allow more Americans to visit Cuba and
lifting some restrictions on travel by religious and academic groups.
The president also increased the number of U.S. and Puerto Rican
airports that could provide charter service to Cuba from three to 15.
"As policy toward Cuba changes, we want to take advantage of it,''
Shortly before the new flights began, Castor convened a brainstorming
session with business owners, representatives from both the Ybor City
and West Tampa chambers of commerce, tourism officials and the Ybor City
Development Corp. to come up with ways to market Tampa to families, and
educational and cultural groups as the "jumping-off point" for Cuba travel.
Now three charter companies offer four weekly flights between Tampa and
Cuba. By the end of the year, they are expected to carry 8,874
passengers, says Janet Zink, a spokeswoman for Tampa International Airport.
But that pales compared to Miami International Airport, which handled
nearly 320,000 Cuba-bound passengers last year and expects even more
Still, Zink says, "There's no question about it, we consider ourselves
an alternative to Miami. There's a very strong effort here in Tampa, not
only by the airport, to strengthen ties with Cuba.''
That's what Tampa Councilwoman Mary Mulhern was trying to do when she
proposed sending a letter of goodwill to the president of Cuba's
parliament to mark the inauguration of the charter flights and to
express a desire to expand them and explore "future opportunities."
During one discussion about the letter, Councilman Mike Suarez objected,
saying, "Our role as City Council is not to make international policy.''
After three rounds of discussion, the City Council finally voted on
Sept. 22 to send the letter — two weeks after the inaugural flight and
after Mulhern had already flown and returned from a quick trip to Cuba.
In an editorial before the vote, The St. Petersburg Times noted that
"the last thing Tampa needs is to reprise the Cold War dramas over Cuba
that too often drag down the political discourse in Miami" and urged the
council to "focus on the progress this nation and the community are
finally making on reuniting two nations with a shared heritage.''
Albert Fox, a former Washington lobbyist who has made some 80 trips to
Cuba and arranged visits by members of Congress and governors, says he
finally hand-delivered the letter to Jorge Bolaños, chief of the Cuban
Interests Section in Washington.
Adding to the Cuba drama in Tampa Bay is the aborted visit of two Cuban
diplomats — First Secretary Raul Sánchez and Juan Jacomino, second
secretary and press attaché at the interests section.
Normally, such Cuban officials aren't permitted to travel beyond the
Beltway and they must ask special permission of the State Department to
venture further afield.
But Fox — the founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuban Policy
Foundation, which supports normalization of relations with Cuba — and a
coalition of business executives extended the invitation and began
arranging meetings. Fox says the Tampa chamber, executives at the port
and airport, and the Florida Citrus Mutual had all agreed to meet with
the Cuban diplomats.
He says the Oct. 26 trip was canceled because the State Department said
paperwork wasn't in order. A new date of Nov. 9 was set, says Fox, but
the State Department denied the travel request. Castor questioned the
turn-down, especially since Bolaños had permission to speak in Ohio in
mid-November. Castor said the State Department told her it was
responding to travel restrictions on the new U.S. station chief in
Havana and the Ohio trip "was planned and approved well before.''
Ros-Lehtinen, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, does not
favor Cuban diplomats traveling around the United States.
"These so-called Cuban 'diplomats' sometimes serve as spies for the
Castro regime,'' she says, and Havana "continues to be a threat to the
national security of the United States.''
Meanwhile, both Robert Rohrlack, president and chief executive of the
Tampa chamber, and Castor say they are planning trips to Cuba early next
The Cuba flights, Rohrlack says, are part of an overall strategy to
bring more international business to the Tampa airport and he will make
the trip mostly to show support for the flights and a desire to keep
During her visit, Castor says she intends to press Cuban officials on
their plans for offshore oil drilling and its potential impact on
Florida, and to follow up on the Florida Orchestra exchange, which is
envisioned as a multi-year program with the National Symphony Orchestra
Pointing up the differences between Miami and Tampa, last year the Miami
City Commission passed a resolution urging Congress to pass legislation
to oppose such exchanges as long as Cuba continues to violate human
rights and deny its citizens basic freedoms.