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Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Times are changing on views about Cuba

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Published:   |   Updated: February 14, 2014 at 06:40 AM

Every few years, usually around election time, there is the Cuban question.

Most Americans consider it a matter of time before the question becomes so diminished it is unimportant.

Not in Florida, and especially not in Tampa and Miami and a few smaller Cuban enclaves in the state. For thousands of us, Cuba is closer than the 90 miles you always hear about. In Tampa there is even a piece of land that is Cuban territory at the Jose Marti monument in Ybor City.

Cuba is in the heart and soul of thousands of Floridians who have families and memories of that island so close and so far away. The Cuban culture permeates our lives. Tampa is a richer city because of it. Without it we might be, oh, Mobile or Jacksonville or any other midsized Southern city. It brings an added layer of culture and lifestyle in the arts, food and an approach to life.

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This week a new survey indicates that not only more Americans in general but even Floridians (62 percent) think it is time for a change. This comes despite continued reports of human rights violations and the jailing of dissidents on the island.

I remember decades ago when I was a student and the passions in the Cuban community here were hot to overthrow the Castro regime.

For a high school social studies project I went to an anti-Castro rally downtown and decided to sign up with a group that said it wanted to overthrow Castro. They took my 10 bucks and told me to stand on a corner off Howard Avenue one evening that week. I did, and sure enough, this big sedan showed up with a few characters that appeared to be out of some B-movie. They made me kneel down in the back so I wouldn't know where we were going.

Of course, when we arrived and I stuck my head up I knew exactly where we were in West Tampa.

There were about a dozen people inside and it was all conducted in Spanish. It was mostly talk about a branch of the group training down in the Everglades, but it sounded more like a camp-out for some old guys not living in reality. At the end they gave me a Cuban flag, some propaganda sheets and loaded me back up in the car, wondering if I wanted to leave another contribution. I didn't, and never heard from them again.

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That was a long time ago. This week I called up Jack Espinosa to get his feeling about all of this. Jack was born in Ybor City of Spanish immigrants but had a career ... well, he was a janitor at Plant High ... teaching a class called “Problems in American Democracy” that he helped design.

I also took a course in fencing from him (as in sword fighting, not stolen goods). He was an assistant county administrator and later was the spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He is the author of a terrific book, “Cuban Bread Crumbs,” about growing up in Ybor, and he is about to publish a new book.

But he is likely the funniest man anywhere around here, and for years he worked the performance stages not only in Florida but in Cuba. He was in Havana during the revolution.

“I don't think they appreciated some of the things I said,” he says. “Later on they distributed a picture of me around the country saying I was involved with the counter-revolution.”

On a more serious note, he thinks we should open up with Cuba to our advantage.

“We need to do the same thing there we have done in China and in Vietnam and Russia. You start trading and they begin to get rich off you and try to have the things that you do. The people come to understand the value of democracy and a free market. Nobody is going to attack the hands that feeds you.”

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