Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado might think putting a Cuban consulate in Miami would be a mistake, but Tampa officials are actively hoping Cuba will plant a consular office in the city on Tampa Bay.
The board of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce recently unanimously passed a motion in favor of reestablishing a Cuban consulate in the Tampa/Hillsborough County area once the United States and Cuba complete the process of reestablishing diplomatic relations, perhaps as early as next month.
Until the United States broke off relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, there was a Cuban consulate in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, and Tampa and Cuba have a long shared history.
“We think a lot differently on the issue [than Miami],” said Bob Rohrlack, president and chief executive of the Greater Tampa chamber. “We think after 50-plus years of isolation [of Cuba], we tried it and it didn’t work.”
When President Barack Obama announced Dec. 17 that the United States and Cuba were on a path toward renewing diplomatic ties and reopening embassies, Regalado said, “We certainly would not support ” having a Cuban consulate in Miami.
Even though South Florida is home to some three dozen foreign consulates, Regalado said locating a Cuban consulate in the capital of Cuban exiles would be a “mistake” because of safety concerns since eventually someone would “try to do something to the consulate.”
Regalado said a White House official raised the possibility of Cuban consulates in the United States during a briefing the day before the president’s historic announcement.
Of course, neither the mayor nor anyone in Tampa would be deciding where a possible consulate should go — it depends on Havana’s desires. Still, Tampa business leaders not only want a consulate but they also see Tampa’s future as the gateway to Cuba.
“As far back as the 1500s, the Tampa community has maintained a rich history of cultural ties with the people of Cuba,” the chamber resolution said. “The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce believes that Tampa should return to its rightful and historical place as an economic engine for facilitating that exchange [with Cuba], and to once again host the seat of diplomatic ties between our two nations.”
In the early days, cattle were traded back and forth between Cuba and the Tampa area. And then in the 1890s, Cuban patriot José Martí rallied cigar workers in Ybor City to lend their support in the Cuban War for Independence against Spain.
In more recent years, there have been cultural and sports exchanges and in 2011, Tampa’s City Council sent a somewhat controversial letter of friendly greetings to the president of Cuba’s National Assembly.
The chamber has organized two trips to Cuba since 2013, and a third, which will be led by Rohrlack, will depart May 12. The delegation plans to visit the renovated port of Mariel, get briefings on telecom and other new business opportunities, visit cuentapropistas — Cuba’s self-employed entrepreneurs — and meet with the head of the U.S. Interests Section.
They’re also planning their trip to coincide with a performance at Havana’s Hotel Nacional by The Fabulous Rockers, a 1950s rock and roll group from Tampa.