With U.S.-Cuba relations on the cusp of potentially significant change, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor arrived in Havana on Wednesday night for meetings she hopes will enhance social ties and business opportunities for the Tampa Bay area.
Castor, who guided Tampa International Airport’s quest for Obama administration approval to serve Cuban flights, carried plentiful expectations on her first visit to Cuba, which concludes Sunday.
“If we can take the next step nearer to better relations, we can help people and create business jobs in the Tampa area,” Castor said. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t hear from someone seeking help with regard to an issue involving Cuba.”
Castor’s Cuba visit is the latest from a variety of groups in the Tampa area to generate business contacts, participate in cultural and educational activities and political fact-finding. It comes as the country’s politics are reportedly changing and the U.S. is considering removing it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a five-day trip in late May for a group of 30, primarily to draw attention to the Tampa-Cuba flights, rather than an economic development prospecting trip.
“Cuba will be the first destination for what we intend will be a series of flights to various international destinations to highlight the opportunities of Tampa International,” Chamber President and Chief Executive Bob Rohrlack said. “If we can help businesses here think more international, it helps all of us.”
Individual Cuban-Americans with rights to travel to Cuba under longstanding trade and travel restrictions have taken direct flights from Tampa since air charter service was authorized to begin here in September 2011.
Tampa-based Island Travel & Tours Ltd., the charter company that ferried Castor and her contingent to Cuba, has flown various groups, including businesses involved with medical research devices to educational groups from Eckerd College and religious groups carrying donations for activities in Cuba, said Bill Hauf, the company’s president.
Hauf, who relocated to Tampa to start Cuba air charter service, is familiar with the details of doing business in Cuba from his lengthy negotiations just to get started.
“This is an urgent time,” Hauf said. “Cuba has made a lot of moves indicating it’s trying to open its country to entrepreneurial interests. If Castor’s trip can open more dialogue it will be helpful for the Tampa Bay area, Florida and the United States.”
One opportunity for change is an impending decision that Secretary of State John Kerry faces within weeks about whether to recommend President Barack Obama take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
An indication of change from within Cuba has been the recent world tour by Cuban opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose message is that Cuban politics is changing. That’s reflected in part by permission Raul Castro’s government made that enabled Sanchez to travel.
Raul Castro said this year he’d step down as president by 2018, ending more than five decades of Castro rule his brother Fidel brought in a revolution whose outcome stunned U.S. political and business interests.
However, relaxing the trade embargo and travel restrictions have been stymied in part by conservative elected officials, particularly from South Florida, although Tampa has pockets of residents who oppose dealings with the Castro regime.
Castor, who plans to share findings from the visit with Obama, Kerry and the Tampa Bay community, said the president could take stronger steps to open U.S.-Cuban relations, but that Washington politics is detrimental to progress.
Castor’s plans while in Cuba include meetings with the Cuban Ministry of Tourism, which controls various visitor and trade issues, including which U.S. airlines, travel groups and locales can do business with the island nation.
Another meeting will involve the Cuban Ministry of Energy.
“Cuba continues to plan to drill for oil offshore and that has my attention,” she said, cautioning the need for safety in the wake of the 2010 BP Oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
A third session is scheduled to involve the Cuban Foreign Ministry on what Castor said would involve “all issues,” including concerns regarding human rights in Cuba.
Castor also plans to meet with U.S. officials at the U.S. Interests Section offices in Havana, which provides consular services.
“I want to discuss why it takes too long for Cubans to get a visa to visit the United States,” Castor said. “I also want to thank them for all they do.”