Tampa and Cuba: Back to the future?

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Long before Miami became what it is today, another region in Florida had close links to Cuba. Tampa was the place where immigrants from the island chose to settle, especially in the second half of the 19th Century, when Vicente Martínez Ybor opened the first cigar factory there.

Ybor City became the epicenter of cigar manufacturing, to which end not only tobacco leaves were imported but also workers. The 1900 Census recorded more than 3,500 people in the area who were born in Cuba, the largest concentration of Cubans in the U.S. at the time.

That was one of the privileged sites where José Martí raised money and organized the 1895 revolution.

Although much history has happened since then and now Miami is home to the largest number of Cuban-Americans, Tampa continues to have strong links to Cuba.

In the new context of relations between our countries, that region seeks to become a fulcrum for bilateral trade relations. That is why, in mid-May, representatives of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce paid a visit to Cuba.

Upon returning to the U.S. they made statements to the local media, expressing optimism over Tampa Bay’s outlook for the resumption of relations and trade once the U.S. blockade is lifted.

Among the 35 members of the group were Joe Lopano, executive director of Tampa’s International Airport; Jim Dean, president of Busch Gardens, and Betty Castor, chairwoman of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarships Board.

During the trip, the third organized by the Chamber, they visited Havana, Cojímar and Varadero; met with officials of the U.S. Interests Section; toured the National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology; and visited the Mariel Special Development Zone.

“This chamber’s role is to position the Tampa Bay region to be ready to do business in Cuba, with Cuba, importing and exporting, when the switch gets flipped,” said the Chamber’s chairman, Ronald Christaldi, to the media.

President Barack Obama’s intention to modify his strategy toward the island is producing a wave of enthusiasm among U.S. business companies. Thus, a revitalized economic lobby is trying to take up positions to take off with the first green light.

The Tampa Chamber of Commerce is already thinking about the first steps it must take once the blockade is lifted. For example, it proposes scheduling more flights to Cuba from Tampa’s International Airport, facilitating commerce through the Port, and developing ties in areas such as health care and tourism.

Christaldi acknowledges that other regions, such as New Orleans and New York, are already sending delegations to Cuba.

“Florida, and especially Tampa Bay cannot afford to do nothing while the rest of the world positions itself to take advantage of this economic opportunity,” he said.

Likewise, the Chamber recently approved unanimously a resolution to establish a Cuban Consulate in the area, something that would be possible once the U.S. and Cuba complete their process of reestablishing diplomatic relations. In fact, a Cuban Consulate did function in Ybor City until 1961.

Even with the present restrictions, Tampa launches about 10 flights a week to Cuba, a figure that could grow significantly if the ban on tourism to the island is lifted for U.S. citizens.

“We don’t have Switzerland 90 miles away; we have Cuba,” said Joe Lopano, executive director of Tampa International Airport.

The effort toward a normalization of relations took another step forward in May with the Treasury Department’s decision to issue specific licenses for a commercial service of passenger ferries to Cuba, something that was prohibited for decades. This measure, which could facilitate the visits of Cuban-Americans to their relatives, could also benefit Tampa.

An editorial in The Tampa Bay Times said that such a service could give a cheaper and more convenient option to families that are included in the 12 categories of people who can legally travel to Cuba. Especially because round-trip ferry rides from Florida to Havana could cost about $250, almost half of the cost of air fare and because the passengers could carry heavier loads of luggage.

The newspaper added that, although Miami offers the more direct route, Tampa’s proximity, its location on the coast and its Cuban-American population make the city a natural host for the ferry service.

In addition, the popularity of direct flights between Tampa and Cuba should be enough to attract the investment of ferryboat operators.

The support given by the region’s businessmen to the new rapprochement with Cuba was publicly thanked by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, during a speech in Tampa in March.

In addition to the growing opportunities for business, there is a potential for cultural and educational exchanges, according to Betty Castor. According to her, students and faculty at Florida’s public universities have been forbidden to make research or study trips to Cuba, even though other U.S. educational centers have that opportunity.

“I hope that that will change,” she said.

Recently, The New York Times published a long report on Tampa-Cuba relations.

“The Cuban imprint is hard to miss in Tampa, where Cuban restaurants, busts of Martí and architectural gems, including the Cuban Club, are scattered across Ybor City, now a historic district,” the article said.

The Times also pointed out that politicians in Tampa — unlike many politicians in Miami — have been pressing since before Dec. 17, 2014, for better relations with Cuba.

For example, in 2013, representative Kathy Castor visited the island and asked for a lifting of the blockade and the travel restrictions. In 2003, then-representative Jim Davis also went to Cuba. In 2002, the then-mayor of Tampa, Dick Greco, visited Havana and met with Fidel Castro.

The process of improvement of Cuba-U.S. relations seems to be traveling along parallel lines that are inextricably linked. One is the official conversations between the two governments to reestablish diplomatic relations and promote the issues of mutual interest.

The other is a growing interest among certain sectors and states to maximize direct economic relations. On that stage, Tampa also wants to play a leading role.

“This Tampa Bay region has a long, history tradition of trade and commerce going back to the 16th Century with Cuba,” Christaldi said, adding that that’s what Tampa officials expect to renew and build upon when the time comes.

By Dalia Gonzalez, Progreso Weekly
June 5, 2015

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