Manteiga’s views are common in Tampa, a city that has always been less averse than Miami to Castro’s revolution. Tampa’s Cuban population is largely made up of descendants from cigar factory workers who came from the island in the 1800s and a new influx of immigrants in the past two decades, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba expert at the University of Denver. Both groups support lifting the embargo in greater numbers than the 1960s-era exiles of Castro’s revolution, who are more likely to have seen loss of property, mass murders, and torture at the hands of the dictator.
“Tampa isn’t pro-Castro, but it’s a population that’s more realistic about the effectiveness of the embargo,” Lopez-Levy said. “Even those who oppose the Castro brothers don’t make the embargo a litmus test.”
In 2002, then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and 19 business leaders headed to Cuba. Greco, the son of an Italian immigrant, had grown up in Ybor City. Greco’s trip was believed to be the first by a Florida mayor to Cuba in 40 years. Cubans in Tampa flooded Greco’s office with angry phone calls and emails, especially after the mayor admitted to spending five hours meeting with Castro.
But Tampa has become far more moderate since, said City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern. She has traveled to Cuba three times, most recently with the chamber in May.
“It’s true that the backlash has been loud and vitriolic,” Mulhern said. “But I could count the number of people who have objected on one hand — and with not many fingers.”
Mulhern is among several Tampa politicians publicly calling for an end to the embargo. In April, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, became the first member of the Florida delegation to call for an end to the policy. Castor, who did not return phone calls for this article, also traveled to the country on a separate trip in May. In an article published on her website, Castor said the country has made reforms that remind her of “the historic economic changes since the 1980s in the former Soviet bloc countries, and in China and Vietnam over the past 25 years.”
Now, Tampa International Airport is putting on a series of Cuban heritage events, including sandwich tastings and Cuban bands, to promote its direct flights to the island. And business leaders are outwardly discussing their plans to expand one day to the island. Those who traveled to Cuba as part of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s recent trip include the president of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, executives from several local hospitals, and the president of the University of South Florida.
Less than a month after the Tampa chamber returned from Cuba, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Chairman Alberto Dosal declined to speak about the issue, instead issuing an emailed response that read in part: “Once Cuba is a free and democratic country, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce would be more than happy to comment on doing business with the Pearl of the Caribbean. Until then, any conversation on the issue is moot and would be premature.”
When asked if Tampa is in a better position to invest in Cuba after the embargo, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Rohrlack responded: “Hands down. Absolutely.”