Cuba libre

Trade with Cuba is worth billions. Why can't Tampa Bay get its share?

Ever since Vicente Martinez Ybor launched the cigar industry in Tampa in 1886, the area's fortunes have been inextricably bound up with Cuba's.

Now, with an estimated 100,000 Cuban-Americans living in West Central Florida — close to 67,000 of them in Tampa Bay, according to 2009 statistics — we would seem well-placed to take advantage of those close ties. The economic embargo against the Communist-led island nation, in place since 1961, was loosened slightly by Congress in 2000, allowing for the sales of some food and agricultural products to private individuals and non-government organizations. Since then, numerous cities and states across the U.S. have done billions of dollars of trade with Cuba.

But not Tampa Bay. Despite the fact that Tampa is just 332 miles directly north of Havana, making it the U.S. port with the straightest path to and from the island, only a few companies in the Bay area have traded with the country. A small band of critics has successfully cowed local officials into not engaging with Cuba, saying that such actions only boost the repressive Castro government.

That's beginning to change. When a Sky King Flight took off from Tampa International Airport in early September for Havana, it was the first commercial plane to take that route in half a century, thanks to an Obama administration decision allowing more U.S. airports to begin offering direct flights to Cuba. By the end of this month, TIA will be offering four such weekly flights, three to the Cuban capital and one to the city of Holguin, on the island's eastern side.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which for years has discussed the possibility of establishing some sort of trade with Cuba, appears more serious than ever, with officials from the business group saying they intend to visit there before the end of this year.

World Trade Center Tampa Bay, a branch of the NYC-based global trade organization, has already made inroads. They've sent a coalition of officials to the island twice over the past two years, says board member Stephen Michelini, and it looks "very promising" for Tampa Bay agricultural businesses to obtain contracts to sell food to Cuba in 2012.

Overtures to Cuba made by two prominent area Democrats — Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor and Tampa City Councilmember Mary Mulhern — have raised great hopes. But their efforts have also been greeted with marked skepticism.

The Cuba/Tampa relationship may be entering a new day, but the path to rapprochement won't be easy.

Kathy Castor has announced that she will be making a trip to Cuba, possibly by the end of next month. Patrick Manteiga, the editor and publisher of La Gaceta, is a supporter of liberalizing trade with Cuba, but he fears Castor's trip will be a duplication of her predecessor's only visit to Havana in 2003. Manteiga says that was a "sham trip" because Jim Davis met with political prisoners there — the equivalent in Manteiga's view of a foreign government trying to open relations with the Obama administration by driving down to Ashley Avenue to talk to Occupy Tampa protesters.

Upon hearing such criticism, Davis, who represented Tampa in Congress from 1996-2006, simply laughs, and says he would agree if that's what happened — but says that in addition to meeting with dissidents, he met with some of the government's highest-ranking officials, including Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba's National Assembly.

In September, Tampa City Council Chair Mary Mulhern spent a short few days in Cuba, a trip she made to celebrate the new flights but also to take advantage of "the inevitable expansion" of such business with Cuba.

City Councilman Mike Suarez objected to Mulhern's letter on the Council's behalf to Alarcon, in which she discussed potential business opportunities for the city and country in the future. Suarez said he didn't think it was appropriate to have communications with a foreign government that the U.S. government does not recognize. He was the only Council member to express such a sentiment.

Much harsher was a recent letter sent to Mulhern (and distributed to every media outlet in town) by Ralph Fernandez, for years the go-to-guy for Tampa media when reporting on any type of Cuban issue.

Fernandez, an attorney and virulent Fidel Castro critic, blasted Mulhern as "the self-appointed minister of foreign relations," and questioned the Chamber's new focus on establishing trade with Cuba, saying "this senselessness of Cuba has gone too far."

Mulhern says if his letter was intended to intimidate her, it didn't.

"This email is insulting, inaccurate, outdated, illogical, and poorly written," she told CL, adding she received 78 positive emails from her constituents after her trip.

There is no doubt that tension still exists between the exile community and those in Tampa who want to establish a more positive relationship with Cuba, hoping that when the embargo does end, the city will be prepared for trade.

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