Following a whirlwind, three-day St. Petersburg visit, Cuba’s cultural and arts delegation spent their final 36 hours in the bay area immersed in local history, art, food and tours of private homes in Tampa and, in particular, Ybor City.
Invited by St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, the Dali Museum and the St. Pete Downtown Partnership, the delegation arrived in St. Pete on the one-year anniversary of “D-17.” On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced his relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba and his intent to re-establish diplomatic relations to the island nation.
Led by Tampa Downtown Partnership CEO Joni James, local civic and community leaders and assisted by Albert A. Fox Jr., the founder and president of Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy, the delegation was invited to explore the potential for artistic exchange.
Kriseman, along with local officials and community representatives, visited Cuba in August and October.
The mayor’s enthusiasm for a renewed relationship with Cuba – especially culturally, and the possibility of a Cuban consulate to his city, has only heightened.
With a Cuba embassy in Washington, D.C. again, talks of a Florida consulate have been ongoing with Tampa, Miami and St. Petersburg at the forefront.
Before the severing of diplomatic ties in 1961, Cuban consulates were in both Miami and Tampa. Today, South Florida is home to over 800,000 Cubans and the Tampa Bay area about 145,000 – Florida’s second largest concentration.
Though Miami would appear the most logical location for consular services, the city’s leaders have lobbied against it. Miami’s politically powerful Cuban-American population, many who either fled Cuba or are descendants of those that did in the 1950s and 1960s, still harbor disdain after fleeing Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1958.
Tampa’s Cuban-American community was formed over 100 years ago by Cubans who left their homeland during the Spanish-American War of 1898, which led to Cuba’s independence from Spain. For the most part, the bay area’s Cuban-American community embraces the relaxed travel restrictions and Obama’s desire to re-establish relations with Cuba.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s historic announcement to re-establish U.S./Cuba diplomatic relations, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D—Tampa) announced that she will help invigorate a bipartisan task force to press for congressional action that will build on the progress.
Castor, along with several Tampa officials and civic leaders, have also traveled to Cuba several times in the past 24 months.
Castor said that the bipartisian effort will encourage greater U.S. engagement with Cuba and begin work towards lifting the embargo.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, meanwhile, has been perceived as “less-than-enthusiastic” about the possibility of a Cuba consulate in his city.
“My new hero is St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman,” Fox said. “I was always pushing Tampa, Tampa for the consulate but Mayor Kriseman is so much more enthusiastic. The Tampa mayor won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.”
Tampa Mayor Buckhorn said he hasn’t taken a stand on the situation but said that if the decision is made by the State Department, he will abide by the law.
Buckhorn, who many speculate will seek the governor’s mansion in 2018, said he wholeheartedly champions the freedom of the Cuba people.
“First and foremost, I would like to see more democratic reforms in Cuba: freedom of the press, access to the internet and freedom to dissent without fear of imprisonment,” Buckhorn said. I think those steps taken by the Cuban government would go a long way to mitigate the concerns of many here in the U.S.”
At Thursday’s “Mayor’s Welcome Dinner” at the Dali Museum, Kriseman was presented with a D-17 commemoration painting by self-taught Cuban artist Esteban Machado Diaz.
During their 72-hour stay before heading to Tampa Sunday morning, the delegation visited the Dali Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, the Warehouse Arts District, the Arts Xchange, Duncan McClellan’s glass studio, Morean Arts Center and its Chihuly Collection, Tropicana Field and St. Petersburg College’s Collegiate High School and Motion Industry Recording Arts Program and Gibbs High School, Pinellas County’s magnet arts high school.
The delegation wrapped up their visit Saturday evening at the Mahaffey Theater for a performance of “The Family Blessing,”
Greeted by Fox, their chaperone, Sunday morning, the delegation was given a crash course in Tampa culture. Among the stops were The Columbia Restaurant, La Tropicana Café, The Refinery, La Gaceta, the nation’s only tri-lingual newspaper and a walking tour of Ybor City with stops at the Don Vicente Hotel and the Oliva Cigar Factory, which is currently being renovated into apartments and offices.
Perhaps most poignant was the delegation’s visit to the .14-acre Cuba-owned Jose’ Marti Park in Ybor City. Marti, often called the “Apostle of the Cuban Revolution,” was a poet, journalist and revolutionary philosopher who became a national hero and symbol for Cuba’s stride for independence against Spain in the 19th century. Exiled twice from his homeland, Marti spent large chunks of time in Ybor City, organizing and delivering speeches to its Cuban community.
Alfredo Ruiz Roche, Director of Ministry of Culture and the Department of International Relations for Cuba, joined his delegates in quietly observing the park as, for a few moments, they were home.
The delegation spent about 30 minutes on the park’s Cuba soil before hitting Ybor’s brick streets, swinging by Seminole Heights and then climbing back into their white Ford Transit 350-XLT van and pointing it towards Miami for their direct flight to Havana Tuesday morning.
Kimberly DeFalco, CL Tampa Bay
December 22, 2015