TAMPA — Florida lawmakers have lambasted efforts by President Barack Obama to normalize relations with Cuba — an initiative that continues today with Obama’s appearance at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
In a memorial adopted Wednesday by the state House of Representatives and March 24 by the Senate, legislators condemn the new policy on behalf of Florida residents and reject the notion of establishing a Cuban consulate here once diplomatic relations are restored.
The measure carries no legal weight, but backers of normalization say it stands a good chance of succeeding anyway.
“New Orleans wants that consulate, so does Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans and Mobile,” said Albert Fox, whose Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation has advocated for normalized relations with island nation for 14 years.
“So where would you choose if you were the Cuban government – a city where you will have no problems or a state that may send picketers to you?”
Local leaders in Miami, with the nations biggest population of Cuban-Americans, have also said they have no interest in seeing a Cuban conusulate there. But many leaders in Tampa — a city with historic ties older than Miami’s and also just a short plane flight away — have embraced the idea.
Both the Tampa chamber and the Tampa City Council have spoken out in favor of a consulate here, as has U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat.
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The House and Senate memorial comes at a time when Obama is acting on the historic normalization initiative he announced in December.
A recommendation to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism is on his desk. And at the summit that opens today, he and Cuban President Raul Castro are expected to meet face-to-face for the first time.
The memorial reads, “the Cuban people have been under the crushing yoke of a brutal communist dictatorship since 1959” and “Cuba has been an active ominous threat to the vital interests of the United States.”
It also urges withholding diplomatic relations and leaving in place the U.S. travel and trade embargo until “such a time when this arcane dictatorship is no longer in power and the most basic human and civil rights are once again recognized in Cuba.”
Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa was the sole dissenting vote in the Senate. The House approved the memorial by a voice vote.
Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, fears it can have a real effect on Tampa’s chances of getting a consulate.
“I am disappointed in the two votes and it is a setback,” Rohrlack said. “The chamber has worked hard to bring the consulate here. The state sending messages like that certainly hurts.”
But Rohrlack said the chamber has an opportunity to undo some of that damage in May when it sends a delegation to Cuba whose mission includes meetings with government officials – the chamber’s third such trip.
The delegation, he said, will remind Cuban officials of how hard Tampa has worked to build better relations with their people.
“That vote is not symbolic of how Tampa feels,” Rohrlack said.
Tampa was among the first cities in the U.S. to resume flights to Cuba.
Parishioners at Tampa’s St. Lawrence Catholic Church are funding the first Catholic church built in Cuba since Fidel Castro embraced communism over 50 years ago,
And the Florida Aquarium is partnering with the National Aquarium of Havana.
“I think all of that is helpful,” said Bill Carlson, president of TuckerHall, a public relations agency in Tampa that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999.
“Whether or not it is enough to overcome what the House and Senate are telling Cuba will be found out soon enough. I hope it is. A consulate here could help a lot of people.”
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A consulate would provide local assistance to those who want to travel to Cuba, do business there, send remittances or provide humanitarian aid.
Currently, such endeavors must go through channels in Washington, D.C.
“We have one of the largest Cuban American populations in the U.S.,” Carlson said. “That is who this hurts most. They could do so much more for their families if they could do it locally.”
Some in Tampa also hope to cash in on business opportunities in Cuba. They see an advantage in the city’s roots as a major trade partner with the island nation before the embargo and Port Tampa Bay’s status as the closest U.S. deep water port to Cuba in nautical miles.
“We could have the closest port and the consulate,” Carlson said. “How could any city top that?”
Carlson added that U.S. industries seeking to do business with Cuba might open locations in Tampa.
Since announcing his executive orders, Obama has argued that expanded business relations can help bring greater freedom to the island nation.
It’s a philosophy not shared by those who voted in favor of the memorials.
“This new policy will ensure that the Castro regime will stay in power a little longer and the Cuban people will continue to suffer,” Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said during the voting session.
Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer long active in the movement to overthrow Castro, said he could not predict whether the Legislature’s memorial means an end to Tampa’s chance of a consulate. But he hopes it does.
“It is an invitation for disaster to bring it to Tampa,” Fernandez said. “People will be picketing. Tensions will be high. Tampa has an exile community that is not too far removed from the pain of living under the Castro dictatorship. I don’t think our city should nor wants to place assets there that will be needed to maintain the peace.”
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However it plays out, travel agent Mike Mauricio said he expects Tampa residents to do business with Cuba.
“The Florida government cannot stop us,” said Mauricio, who operates Habana Art Travel, which brings U.S. citizens to Cuba to learn about its arts scene while importing and selling art created by Cubans. “If the federal government says we can sell items to Cuba or travel there then we can. The state does not dictate federal law.”
But the state government can make it difficult to do business with Cuba, said Carlson of the TuckerHall.
“They can be bullies,” he said. “And they have their ways.”
For instance, he explained, while Port Tampa Bay does not currently have any regular shipping lines taking cargo to Cuba, if they announced an intention to start one he could envision the Florida Senate and House either publicly or privately threatening to withhold state funding.
“I am confident they would try that,” said Fox with the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.
“I am also confident that enough people would speak out against such an action that the state would ultimately cave. But like the symbolic vote it could do real damage. It sends a message that nothing in Florida that includes promoting normalizing relations with Cuba will be easy.”