Tampa ramps up to be a leader in the new relationship with Cuba

A colorful mural on a Ybor City building celebrates the symbols of Tampa’s historic Cuban neighborhood.
A colorful mural on a Ybor City building celebrates the symbols of Tampa’s historic Cuban neighborhood. Miami Herald Staff

Before Miami was even a city, Cubans were rolling cigars in the red brick factories of Tampa’s Ybor City and Cuban independence hero José Martí had visited to drum up support for the Cuban cause. It was the middle of the next century before Cuban exiles began making their mark on Miami.

Those two very different histories have resulted in different outlooks and relationships with Cuba. Many Cuban Americans whose roots stretch back to the early days of Ybor City have embraced the new White House opening toward Cuba and business leaders have hopped on the bandwagon, too, angling to get a Cuban consulate in Tampa and make the city the gateway to Cuba.

José R. Cabañas, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, has visited the city for meetings with the business community and was invited to a recent Cuba forum organized by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa International Airport but couldn’t attend. There also have been numerous sports, cultural and other exchanges between Tampa and Cuba in recent years and former Mayor Dick Greco even met with Fidel Castro in 2002.

This month, two Tampa delegations will be heading to Cuba — one organized by the Tampa chamber and the other, a 63-person cultural mission, composed mostly of Cuban Americans with ties to Ybor City where Vicente Martínez Ybor opened the first cigar factory in 1886.

In Miami, where the 1959 Cuban Revolution meant exile, lost property and uprooted families for many Cubans, people are still finding their way on President Barack Obama’s new Cuba policy. Some support engagement with Cuba; others reject it but overall the embrace of the new policy is more tepid than it has been in Tampa.

“It’s just different histories. That’s it,” said Tampa Councilman Charlie Miranda, whose father arrived in Ybor City from Cuba in 1911. “We didn’t experience what they did. We’re a little more laid-back here than Miami. We’re not so aggressive in our politics.

“But with dialogue, with sufficient energy, we have the opportunity to change the dynamic of hatred,” Miranda said.

To be sure, not all Tampa Cubans share the enthusiasm for the opening with Cuba or want a Cuban consulate in Tampa, but they tend to be exiles who arrived in later waves of emigration to the Florida West Coast city.

Tampa area politicians from Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa/St. Petersburg, to members of the Tampa City Council have supported the rapprochement with Cuba. “Of the seven people on the council, I don’t know anyone that opposes it — not that I’m aware of,” said Miranda, who until recently was council chairman.

In Miami, the city commission has passed a resolution urging Congress to oppose the types of people-to-people exchanges that have been popular in Tampa as long as Cuban violates human rights and denies its people basic freedoms, and last week Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Republican from Miami, filed legislation that would block new flights and potential cruises to Cuba and tied it to a transportation funding bill.

There’s less political downside for politicians in Tampa who support engagement, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said. “That’s true because there’s less Spanish-language media there. They don’t have that 24-hour presence.”

But exiles did organize around the very close mayoral race in 2011 when Greco, a four-term mayor, once again threw his hat into the ring. Greco led a 20-member delegation to Cuba in 2002 that culminated in an interview with Fidel Castro. “Nobody knew about it until he was gone and he had been considered a friend of the community,” said Mario Quevado, a former Spanish-language radio news director and newspaper editor in Tampa.

Greco finished third in the first round of the mayoral race, failing to make the runoff by less than 400 votes, and Bob Buckhorn, the candidate exiles supported, went on to win. “We were the ones who made the small difference,” said Quevado, who left Camagüey, Cuba in 1961 and has no intention of returning under the present system. “There are many people in Tampa who remember that José Martí rallied the cigar workers to support the dream of a free Cuba.”

Regalado, whose Spanish-language radio commentary was heard in Tampa when he was a journalist, agrees that not everyone in Tampa is Gung ho on Cuba. “It’s certain people in Tampa. There are two Cubas in Tampa. One group that came as exiles after 1959 and then there are some who are fifth generation Cubans who came long before Cuba was a Republic,” he said.

But the business establishment seems eager to try to turn Tampa into the new gateway for expanded commerce with Cuba.

The Tampa chamber plans a trip to Cuba on May 12, its third since 2013, with visits to the port of Mariel, briefings on telecom and other new business opportunities, and meetings with Cuban cuentapropistas — self-employed entrepreneurs. Even though the embargo remains in place, the Obama opening would allow trade with Cuba’s private sector.

The chamber board also recently passed a unanimous resolution favoring establishment of a Cuban consulate in the Tampa/Hillsborough County area once the United States and Cuba complete the process of reestablishing diplomatic ties. There was a Cuban consulate in Ybor City until the United States broke off relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961.

Though many Tampeños with Ybor City roots would like to see a consulate return, Oscar Rodríguez, who left Cuba in 1971 and has lived in Tampa for the past 29 years, opposes the idea: “It would be like an extension of the Castro regime here.”

Regalado doesn’t want a Cuban consulate in Miami, either. Too disruptive, he said. When there was a Venezuelan consulate in the city, he said, Venezuelan expats staged frequent protests. “The police had to be called; it cost a lot of money,” he said. [A Cuban consulate] would create a point of friction every day. I believe it is a very bad idea.”

Rodríguez, president of the Casa Cuba, which sends money and other support to dissidents and political prisoners on the island, is opposed to the chamber trip, too. “Those people only think about the money and how many jobs they might get. I don’t know what they think we can buy from Cuba — they only have cigars and rum — and Castro has a history of not paying anything to anyone. What Cuba needs is freedom.”

Still, at Tampa’s Cuba forum in March, Castor was treated almost like a rock star. Tampa International Airport Chief Executive Joe Lopano, who is going on the chamber trip to Cuba, called her a “champion” for the Cuba initiative.

Castor said she became involved in the Cuba issue shortly after she was elected in 2006: “My eyes were open personally when I started seeing in my congressional office the day-to-day issues of Cuban-American families.”

She saw family dramas, such as searches for organ transplant matches and quests to see dying grandparents one last time, exacerbated by the divide between Cuba and the United States. “That changed after it became easier to travel,” Castor said. Obama first lifted some travel restrictions in 2009, and his new policy makes it far easier for Americans to visit the island.

Now, she said, most of her constituents are in favor of the new Cuba policy: “It’s not unanimous but I would say the community is overwhelmingly supportive.” But she said it will take time, especially for the business and trade opening, to develop. “There are still two different worlds that have been isolated from each other for so long,” Castor said.

Tampa business leaders also are trying to push the concept of visitors spending a few days in Tampa, exploring the city’s Cuban culture, visiting the statue of José Marti and following his footsteps along the brick streets of Ybor City where you can still hear a random rooster crowing and catch the smell of Cuban bread wafting from bakeries — and then using Tampa International Airport as their gateway for flights to Cuba.

“So far, that’s not happening with the breadth we would like,” Castor said. “Miami still has the population that sustains a large number of flights.”

Tampa, for example, has 10 Cuban charter arrivals and departures a week. Through April, Miami International Airport was averaging 20 flights to and from Cuba a day. From Jan. 1 to April 28, 125,479 passengers traveled to Cuba through MIA and 141,758 arrived from the island.

When it comes to staking claim as a gateway to Cuba, “The gateway is all about the numbers. It’s not about the philosophy,” Regalado said.

Barry Johnson, president and chief executive of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, is well aware of the Tampa chamber’s trips to Cuba, visits to the island by other chambers across the country and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent foray to Cuba.

Although nothing is scheduled, “I think at some point we will be joining the other chambers in going to Cuba to analyze the marketplace and see where the opportunities are for South Florida,” Johnson said.

At its Economic Summit in January, the chamber had a packed session on Cuba and at its June 4-5 Goals Conference, the chamber will have two critical issues panels — one on transportation, the other on Cuba.

“We believe the changes are becoming somewhat more accepted and there are opportunities in Cuba that haven’t been able to happen in the past 50 years,” Johnson said.

However, Ronald Christaldi, chairman of the Tampa chamber, said the city’s long and positive ties with Cuba mean that Tampa should be a leader in the next chapter of U.S.-Cuba relations. “We believe Tampa should return to its historic and rightful place as an economic engine of business with Cuba,” he said.

“Maybe they’ll be a leader in reaching out to Cuba,” said Regalado, who didn’t seem too perturbed. “After years and years of trying, maybe a door will open.”

Johnson said Miami doesn’t feel threatened by Tampa’s aspirations: “We have not only the geographic advantage, but also a demographic advantage, and this market is much more robust than Tampa. Miami is second to none in knowledge about, and linkages to, Cuba.”

He said the biggest challenge is trying to be respectful of and sensitive to the community. But he added: “I think there is a maturity and awareness that change is coming, and we need to position ourselves appropriately.”

On the cultural front, Tampa also is staking out territory in Cuba. One of the highlights for the large cultural delegation that will be in Havana on May 12-16 will be watching the Fabulous Rockers, a vintage Tampa band that used to sing backup for Frankie Valli and other groups, play at Havana’s Hotel Nacional, said Manny Fernández, a Tampa lawyer who has been traveling to Cuba for the past 12 years.

They’ll be joined on stage by Sol y Son, a Cuban group that has played gigs in Ybor City. “Our group is not political,” Fernández said. “It’s strictly people-to-people. When you start meeting the Cuban people, you find they want the same things we do.”

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