TAMPA — Local political and business leaders Friday largely welcomed the removal of Cuba from the U.S. terrorism blacklist, a symbolic step but one that paves the way for normalizing relations with the communist island.
Secretary of State John Kerry signed off on rescinding Cuba’s “state sponsor of terrorism” designation 45 days after giving Congress notice that he would do so April 14. The interim period was to give lawmakers time to weigh in and try to block the move. They did not do so.
Officials from the two countries are still ironing out details to restore full diplomatic relations, including opening embassies in Washington and Havana and returning ambassadors to the two countries for the first time since the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961.
With Tampa’s historic ties to Cuba, business leaders here have been trying to position the city as a gateway for expected future commerce with the island. A Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce delegation of 35 business and civic leaders visited Havana earlier this month to learn more about trade opportunities.
“It’s another step in the process of normalization and another strong indication that the Tampa Bay region needs to be ready on the balls of its feet and not flat footed to engage in commerce with Cuba,” said Ron Christaldi, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Tampa leaders are also pushing for a Cuban consulate to be built here and for the city to host any ceremonial treaty signing with Cuba. A resolution passed by the City Council in April urges President Barack Obama to name the agreement “The Tampa Accord.”
Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin described Cuba’s removal from the list as “fabulous” and said the city can now continue its push to bring a Cuban consulate to the city that hosted the first wave of Cuban immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“I think it would be international recognition,” Capin said. “The world pays attention to this big old country and the relationship with that little island.”
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa/St. Petersburg, met Friday with Raul Villama, who served as the Cuban consul in Tampa in 1959 when Castro led a revolution on the island. She said she will work to bring a consulate back to Tampa.
“This important step forward will lift families and entrepeneurs on both sides of the Florida straits,” Castor said in a statement. “I anticipate that the opening embassies of is imminent.”
Not all elected leaders agree with Cuba’s removal from the watchlist.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been lukewarm about resuming full trade with Cuba and the pursuit of a consulate, saying that there are still many in Tampa who were mistreated by the Castro regime.
On Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott described Cuba’s impending removal from the terror blacklist as “shameful” and called on Obama to reconsider.
“Cuba has done nothing to warrant being taken off this list,” Scott said in a statement. “The Castro regime continues to undermine U.S. national security interests by sponsoring acts of terrorism.”
The Cold War-era designation was levied mainly for Cuba’s support of leftist guerrillas around the world and isolated the communist island from much of the world financial system.
It was a particularly charged issue for Cuba because of the U.S. history of supporting exile groups responsible for attacks on the island, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger flight from Barbados that killed 73 people aboard. The attack was linked to Cuban exiles with ties to U.S.-backed anti-Castro groups and both men accused of masterminding the crime took shelter in Florida.
Even with the hurdle over the terrorism designation cleared, Washington and Havana are wrangling over American demands that its diplomats be able to travel throughout Cuba and meet with dissidents without restrictions. The Cubans are wary of activity they see as destabilizing to their government.
Both the U.S. and Cuba say the embassies are a first step in a larger process of normalizing relations. That effort would still have to tackle bigger questions such as the embargo, which only Congress can fully revoke, as well as the future of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay and Cuba’s democracy record.
Like South Florida, Tampa’s ties to Cuba have made it a hotbed of support and opposition to the long-time embargo.
Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer who moved to the United States from Cuba when he was 8, would like to see it stay. He said Cuba is still providing shelter to Puerto Rican terrorists who fled to the island after carrying out attacks in the United States.
“It’s a sad day for our justice system,” Fernandez said.” The real loser here is what this country stands for.”
But Albert Fox, who founded the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation in 1998, said it was long overdue for the United States to re-establish ties with its island neighbor.
“The train has left the station and there’s no turning back now,” Fox said.
Obama’s announcement in April that he would remove Cuba from the list had spurred hopes among Florida academics they would be conduct research on the island.
But that was quashed by the Florida Board of Governors which recently advised a state university that the state’s ban on education trips will remain in effect until full diplomatic ties are resumed.
That means more frustration for Frank Muller-Karger, a professor of oceanography at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, who would like to visit Cuban waters for studies on the biodiversity of marine life and how hurricanes form in the Caribbean.
“Everybody else in the country is developing agreements and working with research institutions in Cuba and having educational trips so students get a broader perspective,“ he said. “We are being kept in ignorance.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.