Four top city officials returned from Cuba over the weekend following a two-day fact-finding trip to the island nation. St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, deputy mayor Kanika Tomalin, chief of staff Kevin King and City Council chair Charlie Gerdes departed for Cuba Thursday and returned Saturday, a day earlier than expected, anticipating possible inclement weather due to Tropical Storm Erika.
During a press conference unveiling the group’s findings, Gerdes issued a several minute-long passionate recollection of his short visit to Cuba.
“If we continue to focus on the differences in governance, there are many, many other more important human dignity issues that are being ignored because everyone is focusing on this one difference,” Gerdes said.
While President Barack Obama continues taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba, there are still many barriers in place prohibiting Cuba from trading with the United States or benefitting from other diplomatic ties.
Kriseman told reporters and a handful of members of the public and city staff one of the biggest challenges facing Cuba as a result of the decades-long embargo includes the nation’s lack of access to credit.
“Having access to credit is really quite important,” Kriseman said.
He explained how St. Pete funds major infrastructure projects and various community improvement through bonds. Doing that requires access to credit.
As a result, stepping into Cuba is like stepping into a time machine and being catapulted back in history. Cars are from the ’50s. Buildings are in disrepair. Air conditioning is limited.
But Gerdes noted an air of equality throughout the nation. Cuban leaders are often criticized as being repressive and leaving citizens in deplorable conditions. But Gerdes noted that government buildings were in just as much disrepair as other buildings and homes.
“It’s not the government pouring money into its own buildings and taking care of itself while they ignore the people,” he said, calling it uniformed deterioration. “The haves and the have-nots like you see in other impoverished countries where you see mansions up on the hill and cardboard box houses, that’s not what you see in Cuba.”