A group of 38 business leaders and politicians from Tampa flew to Cuba in late May. Tourist visas forbid them from any official meetings. But there was no mistaking that the trip was about promoting Tampa as Cuba’s future trading partner.
On the last night of the five-day trip, members of the delegation gathered at the bar at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba to watch the sun set over the Florida Straits and sip 7-year-old rum.
Vince Cassidy was among the Tampa delegation. He went with a singular purpose: Someday Cuba will open up to U.S. investors. Land purchases will be a mess. Title companies — like the one Cassidy owns in Tampa — will be needed to research convoluted sales histories.
As Cassidy sipped drinks at the hotel bar, he kept thinking: “We have a foreign country 90 miles away from our shores. We’re not doing business with them right now. Imagine if we were.”
Quietly at first, and now quite publicly, the city of Tampa has courted Cuba in hopes of becoming its future trading partner. Business owners talk of how to expand into Cuba. Politicians make trips there and have come out against the embargo.
Tampa’s efforts began in 2002 with a visit from its mayor. A city councilwoman followed with multiple trips over the past decade, and in May the chamber organized a group of 38 politicians and business leaders.
Tampa politicians talk of expanding direct flights to Havana. They want to be home to cruise ships that call to Cuban cities. And they imagine the port of Tampa becoming the main hub of goods heading to the island once the embargo is lifted.
José Gabilondo, head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said Tampa city leaders talk of exploiting Miami’s reluctance to plan for Cuban trade.
“Ironically, Miami may be the only major city in Florida that’s not actively preparing for more engagement with Cuba,” he said.
Tampa is making a mistake, said Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert and former senior fellow at University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. The country’s crumbling infrastructure can’t support business on a large scale, and its legal system is so corrupt that companies have no recourse when debts go unpaid, he said.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to invest in Cuba,” Gomez said. “Why would Tampa take that risk with a country that’s in shambles?”
Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto compared Tampa’s plans to trade with Cuba to countries that have ignored the U.S. embargo. “They don’t care about human rights, they don’t care about freedom of expression, they don’t care about any of that, these other countries of the world,” he said. “They only care about money.”
Patrick Manteiga, meanwhile, talks about the jobs Tampa will add. He’s publisher of La Gaceta, the Cuban-focused newspaper in Tampa. His grandfather founded the paper in 1922 after spending years as a reader in the Ybor City cigar factories, shouting out the day’s stories to the workers. Manteiga said he circulates 18,000 copies a week in 44 states.
Manteiga has published editorials in favor of lifting the embargo. He has traveled to Cuba. He met with Fidel Castro and had him sign a photo — the photo shows Manteiga’s grandfather sitting with Castro at a table overflowing with money raised for the revolution.
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.”
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.”