Rohrlack said the chamber’s governing board has been talking about planning for trade with Cuba for seven years now. Chambers of commerce are typically forbidden from getting involved in politics, but Rohrlack said he saw an opportunity for Tampa. “People here understand that this 50-year-old policy is outdated,” he said. “It’s time we start thinking about what happens after the embargo.”
Originally, the chamber planned to send one of its own with five others from the community. Hundreds of people expressed interest, and dozens signed up. Rohrlack said they had to cut off the number at 38. “Interest kept growing, and we just finally had to cut it off,” he said.
During the trip, Rohrlack recalled conversations with locals who referred to Miami as a city of anti-Castro politics, while they saw Tampa as a place that grew up around Ybor cigar factories. “In Tampa, there’s a celebration of diversity of Cubans,” Rohrlack said, “while in Miami there’s less acceptance. This is going to bode well for us when Cuba opens.”
Tampa will add “at least 5,000 jobs overnight” when it happens, estimates Manteiga, sitting in front of a painting of his grandfather in the Ybor City office of La Gaceta. Cuba doesn’t have warehouses to handle mass shipping, so supplies will have to be brought in from a nearby port until they can be built. Florida strawberries, for instance, can’t be kept in bulk in Cuba, meaning weekly shipments from the Port of Tampa.
“Tampa has been the safety valve for Cuba for over 100 years,” Manteiga said, noting that Ybor settlers helped fund Cuban independence from Spain. “It’s going to be the same way after the embargo is lifted.”
Like many in Miami, Mike Vidal objects to any dealings with Cuba until the island makes major reforms. Among them, Vidal wants back the land the Castro government seized from his family, including his grandfather’s castle-like home, a copper mine, a cattle ranch, and a mile of pristine oceanfront property.
Vidal, a 57-year-old computer technician, comes from a politically connected family — his grandfather was speaker of the house in Cuba and a United Nations ambassador. His dad was an advisor to President Fulgencio Batista.
“I consider myself pretty moderate when it comes to Cuba,” Vidal said. “But when it comes to doing business with Castro, or traveling there, I don’t want to see it happen until they return the land they took from families, mine included. Pay for it, or give it back to us.”
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org. The Public Insight Network contributed to this report and can be found online at publicinsightnetwork.org.