TAMPA — The top Cuban diplomat in the U.S. paid a visit to Tampa on Thursday, in part to talk business with members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
It’s enough to make anti-Castro interests wonder whether the travel and trade embargo even applies here, coming as it does on the heels of other signs of a thaw — direct flights from Tampa to the Communist island nation, a tour of Cuba this month by the University of Tampa baseball team, and an agreement rooted in Tampa allowing the two nations to cooperate in oil spill cleanups.
Ralph Fernandez finds it all profoundly disappointing and hopes this isn’t the handwriting on the wall.
“It’s betrayal from within,” said Fernandez, a Tampa attorney and longtime embargo activist who has represented former political prisoners of Cuba. “It has breached friendships of a lifetime with me.”
Fernandez remains firm in his belief that public opinion supports the embargo, as it has since it was imposed in 1960 after Fidel Castro overthrew the government in Cuba and brought Communism to the island just 90 miles off Florida’s shores.
Rather, Fernandez insists, more people in Tampa and nationwide are putting business above ideals.
“It’s betrayal for money,” he said. “Anytime you throw money into something that has to do with principles, politics or morality, I get a real sick feeling.”
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José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., attended the Tampa chamber luncheon at the University Club downtown Thursday as a guest of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.
Yet less than two years ago, Fernandez said, the Tampa Democrat was denouncing Cuba for human rights violations. In the summer of 2012, she demanded an investigation into the death of Oswaldo Paya, an anti-Communism activist in Cuba who died when his car crashed into a tree.
Cuban officials said his death was accidental. A passenger said the car was run off the road.
“All of a sudden, she has made a complete 180 degree turn in her philosophy on Cuba,” Fernandez said. “Something happened.”
Castor insists her views on Cuba’s human rights record have not changed. But she said she has come to realize that unless the U.S. opens a dialogue with Cuba, “change will be difficult.”
Dialogue was precisely the purpose of Thursday’s luncheon, said, Bob Rohrlack president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
“This meeting was about continuing communication and conversation,” Rohrlack said.
The chamber sent a 38-member delegation of business and civic leaders to Cuba in 2013 with the mission of making Tampa a singular travel hub between the U.S. and Cuba.
Rohrlack said that he believes this visit by Cabañas marks the first time in the embargo era that a Cuban ambassador has met with the Tampa chamber on U.S. soil.
To Fernandez, an organization that represents the interests of Tampa’s business community has no business meeting with the representative of a nation with which the U.S. is forbidden from doing business. If commerce was discussed, he said, it could constitute a violation of the embargo.
“We did not violate federal law today,” Rohrlack replied. “No one is coming with contracts to be signed.”
The luncheon, he said, was aimed at improving relationships with Cuba in light of recent actions by the U.S. government signifying changes may be coming in policy toward Cuba.
That’s what President Barack Obama declared in November. In December, Obama shook the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. And this week, Captain John Slaughter of the U.S. Coast Guard informed the Tribune of the five-nation oil spill protocol that includes the U.S. and Cuba.
“The U.S. may now be more willing to make more changes,” Rohrlack said. “We want to be ready.”
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Fernandez balks at such a conclusion.
Whether Tampa makes friends with Cuba now or after the lifting of the embargo, sound business practice dictates that the city’s commercial port will be a preferred Cuban trade hub.
“If Cuba is a free and open society,” Fernandez said, “they are going to do what is cost effective. It would be cost effective to come to Tampa rather than a port in Boston — even if they hate us.”
Tampa is already benefitting from changes in the United States’ travel policies on Cuba.
Cuban-Americans with family on the island have been granted unlimited trips there, where before the limit was one trip every three years.
Obama also created a People to People exchange — a license that allows those without family in Cuba to travel to the island as a way of fostering dialogue
The Tampa International Airport currently has 11 flights a week to Cuba. According to airport officials, in 2012 Tampa accounted for 44,711 of the half-million people traveling between the U.S. and Cuba. Early projections have estimated that number rose to 51,594 in 2013, an increase of 15 percent.
Patrick Manteiga, editor of the Tampa weekly newspaper La Gaceta and a longtime anti-embargo activist, said the open travel to Cuba is what is changing opinions.
“Twenty years ago people were told to bury their heads in the sand and believe whatever they were told about Cuba,” he said. “Today, more people are going and forming their own opinion.”
Manteiga, unlike Fernandez, sees public opinion changing.
“People used to be afraid to say they disagree with our policy toward Cuba. But now that they are becoming the majority, many more will be willing to voice their opinion.
“And when that pendulum switches, it switches fast.”
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Cabañas, speaking with the editorial board of the Tribune on Thursday, echoed those sentiments.
“There are misconceptions about what is going on in Cuba and a lack of firsthand information,” he said. “Let’s forget about the travel ban for two months, six months, and let people travel freely.”
He added, speaking of the U.S., “You have a hijacked population.”
Rep. Castor sees positive signs in changes Cuba has made to its economy, decentralizing government-owned companies and allowing for some privately owned restaurants, private lodgings and construction businesses.
In statements following a trip she made to Cuba last year, Castor compared these developments to those that brought an end to Communism in the former Soviet bloc countries.
Another Florida congresswoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, calls such observations foolish.
Cuban-born Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, noted the recent protests in the Cuban city of Holguin by dozens of angry artisans and vendors who feel the government is still repressive. The dissent was in response to a Cuban crackdown on the re-sale for profit of products either imported or purchased from government stores.
“It’s regrettable that certain groups have fallen for the myth that Cuba is a good place to do business,” Ros-Lehtinen said in e-mail to the Tribune. “It’s crucial for businesses to not only think about their bottom line but re-examine the sadistic and vile partners in the Castro brothers.”
Cabañas said Thursday embargo supporters will always find fault with something in Cuba’s leadership.
“Those people will oppose everything,” he said. “Go back in history. At some point it was our relationship with the Soviet Union. Then it was our presence in Central America. Then it was our presence in Africa. We have to agree at some moment that this hate has become an industry.”
Ros-Lehtinen raised yet another red flag about doing business with Castro’s Cuba, saying Tampa might not find it so prosperous.
“It’s well known that Cuba routinely violates contracts and does not pay its debts,” she said.
Added Fernandez, “It’s another example of poor education. This is not news to those who know what really goes on in Cuba.”