Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has no interest in visiting Cuba soon as an ambassador to his city’s businessmen.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said it is not a matter of if he will go to Cuba but when.
The two mayors’ views illustrate how opinions of not only Cuban-Americans but local politicians are divided following last week’s announcement by President Barack Obama that the U.S. will begin normalizing relations with the island nation 90 miles off Florida shores.
The questions the two leaders grappled with after Obama’s announcement are similar to those echoed in the larger national debate about how the United States should interact with Cuba: Is the Cuban government serious about reform? Will closer ties and shared business interests benefit the Cuban people or help prop up an oppressive regime? What about human rights?
Kriseman said he had hoped to go to Cuba in January, a plan already in place months before the president’s announcement. His schedule didn’t allow that trip, but he said he hopes to be able to go soon because he expects cities throughout the country to reach out to Cuba’s leaders to gain a foothold in a market with 11 million consumers.
“There will now be greater opportunities for commerce based on what the president outlined, and I want St. Petersburg to be part of it,” he said.
As mayor, he said, he can play a key role for St. Petersburg.
Buckhorn said he is not against his city’s businesses engaging in a relationship with Cuba. But he does not want to be the face of that partnership.
“I would only consider it if I saw real reform on the part of the Cuban government _ more free speech, more freedom of the press, more freedom of religion, more democratic reforms,” he said.
In his announcement Wednesday, Obama said his new policies could inspire that type of change. Kriseman echoed that sentiment.
“We’ve done the same things the same way for a long time, yet we were still expecting a different outcome,” he said, referencing the trade and travel embargo the U.S. has levied against Cuba since 1962. “The Castros are still there. I applaud the president for doing something different.”
Buckhorn said he respects Kriseman’s decision to visit Cuba and explore economic opportunities but said that is a job best left to the his city’s private industry leaders.
“I think it is more of a business-to-business relationship,” he said. “I don’t know of much value in my going.”
Buckhorn said he will wait and see if importing capitalism to Cuba truly does inspire change before he joins in the lobbying effort for stronger business ties.
He specifically wants proof that Cuban President Raul Castro will live up to his promise to increase Internet access to his citizens. That, said Buckhorn, is key because it will allow ordinary Cubans to see a world they are missing out on.
“We can’t just assume this is a business relationship and ignore the human rights violations and the complete lack of freedom that exists in Cuba,” he said. “When the day comes real change is being made in Cuba, I might consider going.”
Regardless of what political leaders do, the Tampa Bay area’s business leaders could be well represented in Cuba in 2015.
A contingent of private business leaders from St. Petersburg will there in early 2015, said Kriseman, although he did not confirm names or dates and said they are not officially linked to the city. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce will return to Cuba for a second time in the second quarter of 2015.
Margo McKnight, vice president of biological resources at the Florida Aquarium located in downtown Tampa, said leaders from her facility want to visit again to solidify what would become the first-ever partnership between aquariums from the two nations with the purpose of sharing research.
The aquarium’s first trip to Cuba was in October. McKnight said they have not yet decided on a return date.
Leaders from the Tampa Bay area in favor of doing business with Cuba say Tampa’s historic and cultural ties to Cuba could help the area become a gateway for commerce to the island nation.
But the area has benefitted little from the sale of agricultural goods and medical supplies already allowed since 2000.
Mike Mauricio, president of Florida Produce in Tampa that has exported agricultural products to Cuba - apples, pears, grapes, raisins, chicken and dry fruits - since 2000 said he is the only one in this area he knows of who has exported agricultural products to Cuba. He said his company has not sent a shipment to Cuba from Tampa in almost seven years.
Mauricio said elected officials visiting Cuba could help by showing Cuban leaders the community is enthusiastic about being long-term business partners. He cited then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco’s 2003 trip to Cuba that included a meeting with Fidel Castro.
Doing business with Tampa was not discussed, according to Greco, but Mauricio said the trip paid business dividends.
“Obviously any businessman that goes down there is going to be on his own to make a deal work,” Mauricio said. “But I know that when Dick Greco went down there it really helped me with what I was doing.”
Kriseman did not say what options the private group from St. Petersburg will be exploring but said when he is able to travel to Cuba he would want to focus on the marine science partnerships forming between scientists from the two nations.
“We have a huge marine science industry in St. Petersburg and we are trying to grow it,” Kriseman said. “Obviously this will be good for our environment. But this could impact our community economically.”
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is planning on holding a forum in January or February with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa International Airport to discuss the changes in U.S. policy to Cuba and possibilities they open up to Tampa businessmen.
“We will be also working with port officials to examine ways to begin to reestablish those ties,” she said.
How to increase business for the Port of Tampa Bay will be among the topics the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce will research when its representatives return to Cuba in a few months.
“The trip will be educational in nature,” said Bob Rohrlack, the chamber’s president and CEO. “Cuba knows us and knows of the cultural and historic connections between Tampa and their nation. We won’t rest on those laurels. We’ll continue to be proactive, and the next trip is a step in that direction.”