Then-mayor Greco ‘charmed Fidel’ during 2002 visit to Cuba

TAMPA — Dick Greco is thinking again about what might have been — whether relations with Cuba might have been restored earlier had someone accepted his offer to exploit a dialog he opened with Fidel Castro a dozen years ago.

Greco, then the mayor of Tampa, led a 20-member delegation to Cuba in 2002 to learn whether the leader of the island nation would be open to the changes needed to ease what then was a four-decade embargo by the United States.

The answer from Castro was yes, Greco said, but the mayor’s offer to mediate further discussions was rejected by the administration of President George W. Bush.

“I know what Castro told me,” Greco, 81, said in a recent interview. “He wanted to discuss change.”

Change is coming now, with the announcement Dec. 17 by President Barack Obama that he would begin normalizing relations with Cuba after more than a year of clandestine meetings between the two governments.

Could those earlier efforts by a Florida mayor have brought results sooner?

Others beside Greco say yes, insisting that the mayor’s famed people skills won over even Castro — the bearded revolutionary who established a Communist government 90 miles from Florida shores and remained a thorn in the side of 11 U.S. presidents.

“Many political leaders would have gladly traded places with Dick Greco at that time because he had a chance to make history,” said Albert Fox, of Tampa, who through his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation brokered the 2002 meeting.

“There was a definite rapport between them,” said lawyer and civic leader David Mechanik, who was part of the Tampa delegation. “Dick’s charm is legendary, and it was on full display that day. He charmed Fidel Castro. We all saw it.”

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Castro has sent a number of signals through the years of his willingness to talk — reaching out to presidents from Kennedy to Clinton, said Peter Kornbluh, co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba” and a senior analyst at the National Security Archive.

“Even at the height of conflict, and even with the hardest of Cold War presidents, Castro undertook a pragmatic effort to see if better relations were possible,” Kornbluh said.

On the other hand, Castro “made it clear that Cuba would make no concessions to have the embargo lifted,” Kornbluh said. Because to him “the embargo was an unjust and unilateral imposition by the United States.”

Even Obama’s move comes with no concessions on Cuba’s part, he said.

The U.S. will reopen an embassy in Cuba, allow more exports to Cuba, including construction supplies and telecommunications equipment, and make travel to the island easier.

Washington also is signaling its acceptance of the Cuban revolution, Kornbluh said.

Cuba, conversely, “made several gestures but no concessions,” he said.

Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother as Cuba’s leader, released federal contractor Alan Gross as a humanitarian gesture, agreed to set free 53 political prisoners in the future, and recommitted to expand Internet access on the island.

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Former Mayor Greco welcomes the normalization of relations, saying years of isolation have brought few results.

He is among a number of U.S. business leaders and elected officials introduced to Fidel Castro by Fox, of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. These leaders include Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, the late artist LeRoy Neiman and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, former deputy commander of the Tampa-based Central Command.

But Fox said Castro reacted to Greco differently.

“Part of it was because Dick was sitting mayor of Tampa — a city in Florida,” Fox said. “Part of it was because of Dick’s personality. He impressed Castro as someone who could help iron out the differences between the two governments.”

Greco was first elected mayor in 1967, six years after relations with Cuba were cut off — a time when Cubans were fleeing the island nation and its new Communist government to settle throughout Florida.

“Many were my friends,” Greco said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel the need to flee your home and leave it all behind knowing you may never see it again. They had an intense hatred for Castro.”

Still, as the years passed, Greco was disturbed that hatred remained a reason relations never improved.

“I don’t know if I could forgive Castro if I was among the Cubans who left,” Greco said. “Forgiveness is one of the hardest things in the world for anybody to do. But it is also something you should do.”

After a return to the private sector, Greco was elected mayor two more times, holding the office again from 1995 to 2003. And Fox, whose foundation works to improve relations with Cuba, asked whether he would like to visit Cuba.

Greco agreed, but under one condition — he had to meet Castro.

“I didn’t want to go to Cuba just to see it,” Greco said. “If I went, I wanted to be able to make a difference.”

He said he knew the meeting with Castro would turn some friends and constituents against him, but he said he had to find out for himself whether the Cuban leader was willing to change.

“It was an opportunity to find out if I could help 11 million people in Cuba and all the Cubans now living in the U.S.,” he said. “I entered public office to help people. How could I not see if I could help so many?”

The first three days in Cuba were a blur of meetings, he said, talks with the minister of foreign investment and members of the national assembly, among others.

But the conversations that stood out most to Greco were with the people he met throughout Havana.

“Everyone was happy,” he said. “I was a bit surprised. I’m still not sure if it was because they did not know life could be better or because they were truly content.”

Still, he recognized that poverty — whether failed Cuban policy or the U.S. embargo — was to blame.

“All that mattered were the people,” he said. “That’s what I told Castro.”

The meeting took place on the fourth and final day of the delegation’s trip to Cuba.

Greco estimates that 12 Cuban government officials joined the meeting with the Tampa delegation and Castro.

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There was some small talk at first, Greco said, then he told Castro why he was there.

“I told him I did not want to talk about trade or business, nor did I want to condemn him because I am not a judgmental person,” Greco said. “I told him that our meeting was not about me or him but all those good looking kids in Cuba who are being held back because two governments cannot find a way to come together.”

Greco told Castro the two nations should share the blame and make concessions for the sake of the 11 million Cuban citizens.

And he told the Castro that if he made the first move, changed on his own and without pressure, he would be celebrated throughout the world as a man who put doing the right thing above his pride.

To win, Greco recalled saying, is to help the Cuban people — not to prove the U.S. wrong.

Castro’s response, Greco said, was, “I didn’t know mayors could be philosophers.”

For the next two hours, the two men spoke on a variety of matters, among them, how U.S. citizens ride bicycles primarily for recreation rather than transportation, Cuba’s educational system, and Castro’s refusal to allow casinos back into Cuba.

When the meeting was over, a member of the delegation, Monsignor Lawrence Higgins of St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, extended a blessing to Castro.

Then, as they waited for an elevator to open, Castro asked Greco whether he would return to talk more about changes.

“It completely shocked me,” Greco said. “I told him I would try. But it didn’t work out. My government said no, so what could I do? I was just a mayor. I needed the president to tell me what they were willing to do and what they wanted him to do.”

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Castro spoke with others of his meeting with the mayor, including Joan Campbell, the former executive director of the U.S. office of the World Council of Churches and the negotiator in 2000 on the return of young refugee Elian Gonzales to his father in Cuba.

Campbell said she knows Castro “fairly well” and received a Christmas card from him this year.

He did indeed want to see Greco return, she said.

“It must have been a significant event for him to talk of it,” she said.

Greco said that as his plane left Cuba, rising over decaying buildings and old American cars, his wife, Linda McClintock, said, “It looks like the skeletal remains of a beautiful past.”

“She was right,” Greco said. “It’s a shame that the people of Cuba have had to live in those remains for so long.”

Today, elected officials traveling to Cuba still meet with some criticism. But not like then.

Greco was considered a radical back in Tampa, a city with a large Cuban-American population.

Critics said Greco turned his back on those who fled the island and should have embraced the policy of isolation to bring about the overthrow of the Castro regime.

Some of his friends of Cuban heritage vowed never to speak with him again. A few have lived up to that pledge.

Weeks after returning from Cuba, Greco said, he visited a cafe in West Tampa — the heart of the Cuban community in Tampa — and a patron there refused to shake his hand.

“He said he would not touch the hand of the man who touched the devil,” Greco said.

Then he remembered something Higgins told an angry parishioner, and the mayor repeated it.

“You remember who Jesus touched?” Greco asked.

“And the patron replied,” Greco added with a laugh, “ ’Yeah, well, you’re not Jesus.’ ”

Greco said he would make a second trip to Cuba as an ambassador of goodwill.

“I’d go back tomorrow if the president asked me to,” he said. “I still feel I can help.”

By Paul Guzzo, The Tampa Tribune

January 3, 2015

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