Miami Beach leaders tell Cuban government they’d welcome consulate

Miami Beach Mayor talks Cuban consulate

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine told media he and Commissioner Ricky Arriola were open to a Cuban consulate in Miami.
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Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine told media he and Commissioner Ricky Arriola were open to a Cuban consulate in Miami.

Miami refuses to welcome a Cuban consulate into its city because its mayor calls it a political flashpoint and a security risk. Cuba and the U.S. hesitate to open one in Tampa because it’s too far away from most people who would need consular services.

A possible solution to the diplomatic stalemate: Bring the consulate to Miami Beach.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Commissioner Ricky Arriola told the Cuban government in a private meeting Wednesday in Havana that, unlike their Miami counterparts, they’d welcome Cuban diplomats in their city.

“It belongs in Miami-Dade County,” Arriola told the Miami Herald. “It needs to go where they’re going to serve the greatest number of its people. Miami-Dade has by far the greatest number of Cubans in the country. The demand is going to be very high.”

Arriola and Levine sat down Wednesday morning at the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry with Gustavo Machín, the North American division’s deputy director. The meeting had been scheduled with Director Josefina Vidal, but other business kept her away at the last minute.

The prospect of a Cuban consulate in South Florida, home to the largest Cuban exile community in the world, has stirred Miami politics since the U.S. moved to normalize diplomatic relations with the island in December 2014. No imminent decision is expected — both countries have other priorities to sort out first.

But Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, whose father was a political prisoner in Cuba, has stridently opposed any suggestion that his city might house the Cuban government, even threatening to sue in federal court. Miami-Dade County commissioners swiftly passed a resolution in January urging the U.S. to keep a consulate away.

“It affects our peace and stability” to worry about protests every time the Cuban government upsets Cuban Americans in Miami, Regalado told the Herald in January.

They brought it up to us. To them, Tampa is way too far.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine

The decision is not up to any of the local governments, however. And even if Miami Beach does lobby for consideration, the sensitive matter would have to go to the full commission for a vote, Levine acknowledged.

“They brought it up to us,” he said of the Cuban government. “To them, Tampa is way too far.”

Cuba’s embassy in Washington opened last July. Levine said he doesn’t expect any quick movement on a consulate.

The mayor and commissioner traveled to Havana as part of Levine-sponsored trip for Tufts University graduate students. When their dates coincided with President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island, Levine and his fellow travelers rearranged their plans to fit in more official business that would mirror some of Obama’s activities.

The Tufts students also met with Machín, the foreign ministry deputy, after the private talk with Levine and Arriola.

Miami Cuban-American proponents of closer U.S.-Cuba ties filled Havana hotel rooms this week, getting a sense of what the new relationship might mean for their businesses and civic activities.

“It would be beneficial for the Cuban people” to open a South Florida consulate, said Ric Herrero, head of Cuba Now, a pro-engagement group. “By forcing them to go to a some distant city, you're only making life harder for them. You're not helping democracy or punishing the Cuban government.”

Part of the Beach politicians’ goal is to gauge how big a tourism competitor Havana might pose their city. Levine said a Cuban consulate might prompt future Cuba tourists to stop by the Beach for a few days to process paperwork ahead of their trips. That detour could make a Havana destination more “complementary” to the Beach than a direct competitor, he said.

“This is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow,” he cautioned. “It’s a premature issue.”

One consulate exists on the Beach now. It belongs to another Caribbean island nation with a bellicose history with the U.S.: Grenada.