As President Obama makes his historic visit to Cuba, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, has been part of a delegation of dignitaries traveling with the President.
Over the phone on Monday afternoon, she lauded the historic event and said the Tampa Bay region has had a unique role in ushering in the budding friendship between the two countries.
“The Tampa Bay area's been more forward-leaning than any other community in the country, and I was able to talk with President Obama yesterday in order to thank him for hearing us, for hearing the calls for change from Cuban-American families, from churches, from arts and cultural groups, from chambers of commerce, they have been pressing for change and have had this dialogue with President Obama before he was even elected, when he was running for president," she said. "So it's very gratifying to be here representing the Tampa Bay area at a time when we are beginning to turn the page on the Cold War politics of the past.”
She said while Cuba has taken key steps in the realm of human rights (a subject over which Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro clashed in a news conference Monday), news of arrests of protesters since Obama's arrival suggest the country has a ways to go in that regard.
“The Cuban government has got to loosen its control over freedom of speech for those protesters,” she said.
On the other hand, she said, there have been great gains in terms of giving millions of people access to cell phones and internet and letting them travel outside the country, among other things.
“You do have to give some credit there," she said. "The economic reforms there have allowed people to open their own businesses, work in the private sector, own property, they can leave the island, whereas years ago they weren't permitted to leave.”
On Monday, Cuban President Raoul Castro said called on the U.S. to shut down its prison at Guantanamo Bay, a controversial place for keeping terrorism suspects, and give the land back to Cuba. Castor said she agrees that the prison should be shut down, but that giving the land back at this point would be kind of a stretch.
“I think Guantanamo should close for a number of reasons," she said. "We need to be saving dollars. The penitentiaries, the high-security prisons in America are very well equipped to handle the detainees in Guantanamo. I'm not there to say, yes, give it back to Cuba. I do not agree with that. It may be part of a negotiation one day, but I'm not ready to say that. But I do think we should close down Guantanamo for the cost and the fact that it generates a lot of ill will. It could even be a recruiting tool.”