As Havana and Washington expand their diplomatic embrace, some Miami leaders have a stern message to both parties: Leave us out of it.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said Monday he would sue to block Cuba should the country ever try to open a consulate within city limits. A county resolution set for a vote later this week would urge President Barack Obama not to allow a Cuban consulate in Miami-Dade, saying the satellite embassy “could inflame passions and create security risks.”
Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the son of a Bay of Pigs veteran who sponsored the county resolution, called a potential Cuban consulate “a travesty” to the exile community under the current dictatorship.
“The moment there’s a free Cuba, the moment there are elections in Cuba, the moment that beatings stop happening in Cuba, then I think there will be a very bright opportunity [for Miami-Dade] to take its right leadership role in Cuba,” Bovo said. “All we need is to be a little patient.”
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At issue is what many see as a natural next step after Cuba re-opened its Washington embassy last July as part of the two countries’ pursuit of normal diplomatic relations. Foreign countries tend to pick cities with large immigrant populations when setting up consulates outside of Washington, since expatriates have the most need for processing visas, obtaining birth certificates from back home, and other paperwork issues that otherwise might require a trip to the actual embassy.
“Miami is logically the place for a consulate, and it will probably not be the place for a consulate,” said Mike Fernandez, a Cuban-born healthcare magnate in Coral Gables who is a top Republican donor. He supports ties to Cuba and traveled to Havana last fall as part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s outreach programs. “If I was mayor of Miami, I would say I represent everyone in Miami, and I represent the future of Miami. And this is business.”
“It’s absolutely time to forgive,” added Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners. “It’s way overdue.”
Tampa, with one of the largest Cuban populations in the United States, already is campaigning to receive Cuba’s first consulate, with area leaders passing resolutions welcoming the diplomatic outpost. But in Miami, home to the largest Cuban population outside of the island itself, leaders are publicly recoiling at the idea of Cuba claiming any local real estate.
“I’m going to go to federal court if the State Department grants a license to Cuba to establish a consulate here,” said Regalado, who was born in Cuba and whose father was a political prisoner under Fidel Castro for two decades.
Regalado described a potential Cuba consulate as an “unfunded mandate,” because Miami police would constantly need to react to the protests and security risks tied to it. He said Miami faced a similar situation during the leadership of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, when the that nation’s consulate was a frequent source of tension in the city. Venezuela closed its Miami consulate in 2012, leaving Miami’s heavy Venezuelan population to travel to the New Orleans consulate for paperwork and visa needs.
“Every time the Cuban government does something” controversial, Regalado said, “we’re going to have protests.... It affects our peace and stability.”
President Obama has more in common with the Castro brothers than he does with the American people.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban ‘Steve’ Bovo
The contretemps over a hypothetical Miami Cuban consulate is largely seen as a symbolic fight, because Washington decides where a foreign power may open diplomatic outposts around the country. It’s the latest example of Miami’s political leadership resisting a rapid expansion of governmental and business ties between the United States and Cuba following Obama’s announcement in December 2014 that he was pursuing full diplomatic relations with the Castro regime.
“President Obama has more in common with the Castro brothers than he does with the American people,” Bovo said. “The president probably had a Che Guevara poster affixed to his wall in college. He has much more in common with the Castros on broad issues.”
Bovo cited a Bendixen & Amandi poll from 2014 that found national support among Cuban-Americans for a Miami consulate (50 percent favored it while 39 percent opposed) but that the issue became much narrower in Florida. The poll found 41 percent of Cuban Americans in Florida wanted a consulate in Miami, compared to 46 percent opposed.
Already, commercial ties between Miami and Cuba are expanding at a rapid pace, with Washington clearing away regulatory hurdles even as a formal embargo remains in place.
American Airlines hopes to lead the way with a new schedule of regularly scheduled flights between Miami and Havana, ending the need for the chartered flights that currently handle the increasingly popular route. Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company, plans to use PortMiami as a launching pad for Cuba-bound itineraries later this year.
If I was mayor of Miami, I would say I represent everyone in Miami, and I represent the future of Miami. And this is business.
MBF Healthcare Partners Chairman Mike Fernandez
But when news filtered out earlier this month that PortMiami was in talks with ferry operators about potential routes to Cuba, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez called a press conference to emphasize the county does “business with carriers” and not “with countries.”
A Gimenez spokesman said the mayor would “work with” Washington if it ever chose to put a Cuban consulate in Miami.
“Mayor Gimenez believes it is premature to discuss the opening of a Cuban consulate in Miami-Dade County when several other issues between the United States and Cuba need to be resolved,” spokesman Michael Hernández wrote in a statement. “However, it is a federal decision whether to permit a consulate in our community, and Mayor Gimenez’s administration will work with the federal government should that decision be made.”