TAMPA — Joe Garcia remembers when flights from Tampa to Cuba were as common as guayaberas and cigar shops in Ybor City. This was before Fidel Castro, before the Cuban embargo, when the two nations were on friendly terms and Havana was known as one of the top nightlife destinations in the world.
Garcia, former chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, had long wanted to go to Cuba, but couldn’t as a child because his family didn’t have the money. When he could afford it later, the travel ban stood in the way. Then, in 2011, the Obama administration loosened restrictions, flights from Tampa returned, and Garcia has made two trips this year.
“I am glad I went,” he said. “I wanted to visit the country that has had so much influence on Tampa’s culture.”
Now travelers like Garcia have hit another bump in the uneven history of travel between the neighboring lands.
Havana’s diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C., in operation for more than three decades, announced Nov. 26 that the bank it deals with is getting out of the foreign delegations business, forcing Cuba to suspend services. This includes providing licenses to U.S. citizens traveling to the nation.
The hiatus casts doubt on the future of a growing Tampa-Cuba travel business.
The flights today don’t approach the frequency of Garcia’s youth yet, but in 2012, Tampa accounted for 44,711 of the half-million people traveling between the U.S. and Cuba. Tampa International Airport projects that number will rise this year to 51,594, an increase of 15 percent.
To keep up with demand, the airport celebrated the addition of a 10th weekly flight Tuesday and plans to announce an 11th this Tuesday.
“We have the third largest Cuban-American population in the country,” said Janet Zink, the airport’s director of communications. “And because of all the historic ties we have to Cuba, there is an interest from the general public even if they are not Cuban to go. The airport is about serving the demands of the residents of the Bay area. It’s all about supply and demand.”
Some pre-issued visas are still available through travel agencies, but no new visas are being issued until the Cuban Interests Section finds a new bank. U.S. nationals can only get them for humanitarian reasons.
Zink said the airport had no comment on the shutdown. None of the four Cuban charter services flying from Tampa International responded to inquiries.
“This could be an exceptionally difficult time for those who want to visit family in Cuba,” said Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C.-based international attorney who specializes in legal issues brought on by the Cuban embargo.
Muse explained that those born in Cuba before 1971 then moved to the U.S. have Cuban and U.S. passports. They can continue to travel freely to Cuba if the passport is current. A passport renewal or update, such as adding a family member, is processed by the now-closed interests section.
Travel agencies that provide services such as “people-to-people” licenses are sometimes provided a certain number of pre-approved visas to be filled out later for certain classes of visitors. Until these advance visas run out, Muse said, travelers using them can still visit Cuba.
He stressed that a Cuban-American who hopes to visit family in Cuba cannot do so under a people-to-people license.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, said she believes the Cuban government is using the family travel issue as a political ploy to have U.S. restrictions loosened.
The Cuban Interests Section was informed in June by Buffalo-based M&T Bank that it would no longer service the nation’s account. Ros-Lehtinen questioned why the interests section waited until the holiday season to announce it could not find another bank.
“This is nothing more than another pathetic attempt by the Castro brothers to get off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “The Castro thugs always blame the generous U.S. over its own failings.”
Travel agencies dealing in trips to Cuba said the suspension of services will not slow holiday travel. The paperwork was long ago arranged for these trips. It is travel in January and beyond that could suffer.
President Barack Obama has announced that the State Department is working to resolve the matter, but no timetable has been set.
“Tampa could feel it within the next 45 days,” said Al Fox, president of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.
New Jersey-based Marazul Charters Inc. did not seem too worried about the affect on customers who fly to Cuba from Miami.
“I cannot speak on behalf of other agencies, but we are doing everything we can to ensure that there is no interruption in services,” said Bob Guild, Marazul vice president.
Guild said Marazul representatives may file the necessary paperwork with appropriate government agencies in Havana. Customers will then either have visas handed to them by the representatives in the U.S. or when they land in Cuba.
“There have been a lot of hoops to jump through over the years,” Guild said. “This is just another.”
The question is whether Tampa travelers are willing to jump through new hoops.
In Garcia’s case, he said, maybe not.
“I would not have gone if it was difficult,” he said. “But the process was easy, so I did it.”
Added Fox, “We don’t want to have a ‘wait and see’ attitude about this. We need to hope this banking issue gets resolved before it affects travel to Cuba.”
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said she has contacted the U.S. State Department and the Cuban Interests Section to urge a resolution.
“Independent decisions by private banking institutions are difficult to address,” Castor said in an email, “but I will continue to seek solutions on behalf of families and my community.”
Muse was optimistic.
“I don’t doubt that the Obama administration wants to solve this quickly,” he said.
“Its signature policy toward Cuba has been enhanced travel. ... This is jeopardizing it.”