Miami Beach

In historic visit, Miami Beach mayor to travel to Cuba next week

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine Miami Herald Staff

In a historic visit, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine plans to travel to Cuba in his official capacity next week, becoming the first head of a Miami-Dade County city to go to the island since the 1959 revolution.

Levine will fly to Cuba to help lead a graduate seminar for Tufts University, which he said asked him to join a dozen students of international affairs. The dates, set some time ago, happened to coincide with President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to the island, the first time a U.S. president will step on Cuban soil in nearly 90 years.

“I think I’m the first mayor from Miami-Dade County to go,” Levine told the Miami Herald on Tuesday, in a boast that might have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. “I believe in the Cuban people in Cuba as well as the Cuban people in Miami. And I believe that we need to engage people in Cuba, and we need to do it through all types of interaction, and we need to give them hope.

“I think if you empower the people, the people will be able to bring about the changes that they would like to see, whether it’s human rights and, of course, all types of freedoms.”

Part of what Levine wants to find out is how Havana might shape up as a tourism destination in competition with Miami Beach.

“Being a proactive mayor doesn’t mean putting your head in the sand and thinking, somehow, that this previous tourist destination of Cuba is not going to somehow come alive again,” he said. “It’s incumbent on someone like myself, as a mayor, to go down there to engage, and to understand what we may be in store for in the future as it pertains to our core industry.”

I think if you empower the people, the people will be able to bring about the changes that they would like to see, whether it’s human rights and, of course, all types of freedoms.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine

Another Beach elected official, recently minted Commissioner Ricky Arriola, will accompany Levine on the Tufts trip. Arriola, the Miami-born son of former Miami City Manager Joe Arriola, who was born in Cuba, said he visited the island twice before, including a family trip to Havana last year that included his father.

The younger Arriola, a business executive, called the Tufts trip “exploratory” and called the former U.S. policy of isolating Cuba “a doctrine whose time has passed.”

“It’s clear that with the path we’re on, barring anything unforeseen, we’re going to be in an active dialogue with Cuba, and I want to be able to speak intelligently on the issues in the decade ahead.” Arriola said.

It’s not long ago that going to Cuba would have been political suicide for any elected official in Miami-Dade, with its large proportion of voters who are exiles from the Communist regime or their children and grandchildren.

That two local politicians would proudly announce their visit is a sign of just how rapidly Obama’s opening to Cuba has changed the political dynamic. Still, Levine and Arriola represent a city, which though ethnically diverse — including a large population of Cuban descent — is relatively liberal socially and politically.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, however, said he has no intention of setting foot on the island while the regime remains firmly in charge.

“What I see is that Mayor Levine is curious, because Cuba is exotic. I don’t know how his constituents, many of whom are Cuban American, will feel about it. But I frankly would not go now, or after,” said Regalado, whose father was a long-serving political prisoner in Cuba, referring to Obama’s visit. “That’s not just an emotional thing for me, but it also represents the interests of many citizens of Miami. I would not want to endorse a regime that hasn’t changed.”

What I see is that Mayor Levine is curious, because Cuba is exotic. I don’t know how his constituents, many of whom are Cuban American, will feel about it. But I frankly would not go now, or after.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado

The genesis of Levine’s five-day Havana trip goes back to last summer. He said he approached Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy about creating a customized, week-long intensive course in foreign policy for him. He established relationships with several professors, and months later they inquired about a potential Cuba course, allowed under existing travel restrictions to the island that the Obama administration further loosened Tuesday ahead of the president’s visit.

Sign me up, Levine told the Massachusetts university. He will accompany 12 students and a professor of political economy.

“This is a unique moment in history and our students will be immersed among the Cuban people to learn about the path forward through direct engagement and diplomacy,” Fletcher School Dean James Stavridis said. “The normalization of relations with Cuba is the right decision, and one that I have long publicly supported.”

Levine went to Cuba once before, he said, though he was fuzzy on details and said he thought it had been organized through the U.S. Treasury Department.

An independently wealthy Democrat, Levine has long hinted at higher political ambitions. He has been rumored as a possible candidate for governor. Earlier this year, he campaigned in New Hampshire and South Carolina for presidential contender Hillary Clinton, whom he considers a friend.

But Levine characterized his Cuba visit as one geared at learning, not at politics. He intends to meet with University of Havana professors and students, as well as with the Cuban foreign ministry and the new U.S. embassy.

“We’re of course going to hopefully be meeting with dissidents, as well as the LGBT community,” Levine said.

Obama’s visit has made planning more challenging, Levine said. with special logistics to work around the president. The group will arrive earlier than Air Force One, for example, to avoid an expected Havana airport shutdown.

Levine said he’s unconcerned about stirring political controversy among hardline Cuban exiles in his city who might oppose the normalization of U.S. diplomatic relations.

“A lot of my constituents, what I’ve heard, is that so many are going back to Cuba. So many of them have family in Cuba,” Levine said. “As a matter of fact, in my company, Royal Media Partners, we have a few Cuban Americans working here who came to our country in the ’90s, and they have family there, and they want to see a continuation of the normalization.... You’ll find that many Cubans in our community are very much in favor of it.”

Regalado has dismissed the notion of the U.S. opening a Cuban consulate within city limits, and county commissioners voted symbolically earlier this year to oppose it. Across the Florida peninsula, Tampa is eager to do so; Tampa’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor will travel with the president next week.

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