Paul Guzzo | The Tampa Tribune | October 26, 2014
TAMPA — A vote this week in the United Nations will serve as a reminder of the long-standing U.S. policy to isolate Cuba as a means of encouraging moves toward democratic rule there.
It’s a vote that also spotlights U.S. isolation on the issue.
On Tuesday, the U.N. General Assembly takes up a resolution on “the necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”
For the 23rd straight year, the assembly is expected overwhelmingly to condemn the U.S. policy. Last year, the vote was 188-2, with Israel joining the U.S. in supporting the status quo.
Key U.S. leaders pay the numbers no heed, including Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio put Cuba in the company of North Korea and Iran during a Senate floor speech earlier this year, saying, “If America and its policymakers are not going to be firmly on the side of freedom and liberty, who in the world is?”
But this time, a more conciliatory response may follow the U.N. vote.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, said she has spoken with President Barack Obama on the issue and believes he may make a major announcement on relations with Cuba by April to show he is committed to normalizing relations — something he pledged to work toward during his first campaign for the White House.
“If you look at that vote, you realize that the U.S. is indeed the outlier on this issue,” Castor said. “It is time we recognize this and do more to bring our two nations together.”
April is when the seventh Summit of the Americas will be held in Panama — and for the first time, despite objections from the U.S. and Canada, Cuba will attend.
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At the most recent Summit of the Americas in 2012, heads of state in attendance lectured Obama on U.S. policy toward Cuba.
The president cannot lift the travel and trade embargo the U.S. imposed on Cuba in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro overthrew the government of the island nation and embraced Marxism. Only Congress can sweep away the policy of isolating Cuba.
But the president does have the power, Castor said, to make decisions that can chip away at the embargo’s goal of separation between the two nations — lifting the travel ban, for example, or taking Cuba off the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
Either move would be felt in Tampa.
Currently, only those with family in Cuba or those on educational trips can travel there. Its beach resorts, which are popular among European and Asian tourists, are off limits to Americans because of the U.S. law.
Still, even with those restrictions, flights to Cuba via Tampa International Airport attract more and more passengers.
In fiscal 2012, the first full year the flights were offered, 41,526 passengers traveled to Cuba from Tampa. That number climbed to 45,595 in fiscal 2013. And for fiscal 2014, the passengers increased to 61,408.
If the travel ban were completely lifted and Americans could go to the resorts, the number of passengers flying out of Tampa to Cuba would grow exponentially, said Frank Reno, president of Tampa-based Cuba Executive Travel, which organizes group educational trips to Cuba.
“I think so many would want to go that there would have to be a waiting list,” Reno said. “Tampa’s airport would prosper.”
Florida also has a special stake in Cuba’s status as a terrorist nation: It is the only state than bans travel to nations on the list — Syria, Iran, Sudan and Cuba — by people associated with a state-funded university.
Professors from the University of South Florida have said this puts them at a disadvantage compared to private universities in Florida and universities, public or private, across the nation. Cuba is especially appealing to university researchers interested in marine life, geography, history and the arts.
Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 primarily because of its support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC. A Communist militia linked to the Colombian drug trade, FARC has been at war with the government since the 1960s. But Cuba now is the host nation for peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government.
According to the State Department’s most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, there is no indication the Cuban government provides weapons or training to terrorist groups.
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Cuba’s continued listing is an international embarrassment, said Albert A. Fox Jr., founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.
“The rest of the world mocks us for calling Cuba a terrorist state,” Fox said. “It diminishes the importance of the terrorist list. We are the only country that would call Cuba a terrorist nation and it is laughable. We are losing respect in the eyes of the world because of it.”
Still, those who favor continued isolation for Cuba say the U.S. cannot base policy on international opinion.
“The decision of which nations the U.S. chooses to conduct commerce with belongs to the U.S. government, specifically to our democratically elected Congress,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. “If other nations choose to do business with Cuba’s dictatorship, that’s for better or worse their prerogative.”
How serious other nations are about working with Cuba will become clearer in the coming weeks.
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Cuba recently took new steps to encourage foreign investment by eliminating its labor tax, cutting its profit tax in half while exempting most companies from paying the tax for eight years, and authorizing joint ventures with foreign interests.
According to the Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba, the first update on international investment since the new laws were announced will be presented at the 32nd Havana International Trade Fair, scheduled for Nov. 2-8. The fair promotes foreign investment in Cuba and is expected to draw 1,400 enterprises from 64 countries.
By some accounts, as many as two dozen international businesses have been talking with Cuba, said Philip Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center, an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit that monitors the Cuban economy.
One early concern among potential investors is the requirement that the Cuban government is a partner in all ventures.
“There is no way to know how talks are going.” Peters said. “It will be interesting to see what came of them. It can help us learn if the Cuban government will be easier to work with under these new guidelines or if it has more to do on its end.”
A few Tampa businessmen have expressed interest in one day investing in Cuba, and local leaders have begun establishing relationships there. A delegation from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce traveled to Cuba in 2013 and in January, José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., attended a Tampa chamber event as a guest.
As the closest U.S. deep water port to Cuba, Tampa could see trade benefits — even for its once-signature cigar industry, with its roots in Cuba — if the embargo is lifted.
But until then, any local ovations to Cuba are symbolic as other nations take advantage of the invitation for international investment.
“If there is a long period where foreign companies are investing in Cuba while U.S. companies are shut out, then our economies will definitely be at a disadvantage when U.S. restrictions are finally lifted,” Peters said. “It’s a market of 11 million people and even though Cuba’s economy is likely to grow, timing is always an advantage.”
But Claver-Carone with U.S.-Cuba Democracy said those doing business with Cuba support an oppressive regime because every dollar must first be funneled through the government before it is distributed to the people. That the Cuban people have so little, he said, shows that the government is keeping the majority of the profits.
“The U.S. rightfully believes it’s not in its interest to finance the sole remaining dictatorship in the Americas,” Claver-Carone said.
Rubio’s staff referred all questions for this story to his speech on the Senate floor in February, when he rebuked a delegation of Democratic colleagues for returning from Cuba with a message of conciliation.
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Rubio cited examples of repression by the Castro regime in reiterating the role he believes the United States must continue to play.
He said then, “we, as the freest nation on Earth, are looked to by people in this country, and all around the world, to stand by them in their moment of need when they clamor for freedom and liberty and human rights.”
Rep. Castor said she agrees that Cuba needs to improve its human rights record but insists that engagement is the best way to make that happen.
“We can do a lot to help their people,” Castor said, “but the governments keep getting in the way of our ability to do that.”
Fox with the Tampa-based alliance said it’s not Cuba’s government standing in the way of improved relations.
“When Fidel Castro was still president he told me that he was prepared to meet with the president of the United States or his representatives any time, any place to discuss anything including political prisoners and human rights violations,” Fox said.
Castro, in fact, reached out to every U.S. president during his time in office, said Peter Kornbluh, author of the book, “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.”
“Castro sent proposals for dialogue to Nixon,” Kornbluh said. “He reached out early on to Reagan. Even at the height of conflict and with the hardest of Cold War presidents, he undertook a pragmatic effort to see if better relations were possible.”
His brother, Raul, now president of Cuba, stands the best chance of high-level talks if Obama chooses to attend April’s Summit of the Americas.
“I hope the president does go,” Castor said. “It could be a defining moment for both countries.”
She noted that the U.S. already works with Cuba on a number of issues, including fighting drug trafficking and planning for oil spill cleanups.
Most recently, representatives of Tampa’s Florida Aquarium said they are working on a partnership in coral reef research with Cuba’s National Aquarium of Havana.
“America and Cuba have so much to gain by turning the page on these Cold War policies,” Castor said. “And all of our friends in the hemisphere are in favor of that happening.”