Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin visited Cuba in 2013, along with other members of the council and the Chamber of Commerce. Upon their return, a concerned citizen filed a public records request.
The filer wanted to know if the council members had “traded any papers” with Cuban government officials.
Capin’s assistant fell silent when the councilwoman told her that she indeed had handed a document to a Cuban government official.
A resolution from 2012 making the Cuban Tampa’s official sandwich.
On a national scale, our relationship with Cuba is seeing significant shifts, and many public officials and economic development champions worry that we could miss opportunities there if the Tampa Bay region is not more proactive.
There’s no doubt Tampa’s relationship with Cuba is much more positive than Miami’s. That’s largely to do with the time frame in which the cities experienced their most significant influx of Cuban immigrants.
In South Florida, many Cuban-Americans have memories of escaping Castro’s brutal regime in the late 20th century. While there are pockets of Castro-era immigrants in Tampa that still vehemently oppose normalizing relations with the country, many Tampans are a few generations removed from their Cuban ancestors, those families having left Cuba over a century ago.
But it has only been in the past decade or so that Tampa officials, spurred by economic interests, have publicly embraced the communist country that’s been cut off from the U.S. for more than half a century.
“I’ve seen an emergence of voices, very positive, very anxious just to get rid of this old Cold War mentality,” said Maura Barrios, a retired University of South Florida professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. “It’ll happen.”
Perhaps one of the earliest signs of shifting attitudes was then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco’s 2002 visit to the country — well ahead of President Obama’s historic declaration last December. Greco’s trip was organized by Al Fox, head of the Alliance for Responsible Cuban Policy Foundation, who continues to try to break down the barriers between Tampa and Cuba.
During his visit, Greco spoke with then-president Fidel Castro about improving the relationship between the two countries, and faced criticism for doing so. He told the Tampa Tribune’s Paul Guzzo earlier this year that upon his return, a man at a sandwich shop in heavily Cuban West Tampa refused to shake his hand.
“He said he would not touch the hand of the man who touched the devil,” Greco told the Trib.
In the 13 years that have passed since Greco’s Cuba visit, a lot has changed, especially in Tampa, even if virulent opponents to normalization remain.
“They’re around,” Barrios said. “But there’s many more of us now, and political leaders joining, and businesspeople joining, and people traveling now and coming back.”
Capin recalls an event in 2007, when then-candidate Obama headlined a campaign event at the Cuban Club organized by her late husband, who engaged Obama in a conversation about opening up a dialogue with Cuba.
The first Tampa elected official to visit Cuba after Greco was former Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, who traveled there in 2009 under a humanitarian visa with Tampa Port Authority board member Carl Lindell, in part to “place Tampa in the game for when things started to open up.”
Two years later, on the eve of another Cuba trip, she made a motion asking her colleagues to acknowledge a “ceremonial” letter she wanted to present to the Cuban National Assembly.
“I couldn’t get a second. I could not get a second,” she said in an interview last spring, adding that taking that largely symbolic step got her a lot of political flack. “I took the brave step, now everybody got on the bandwagon. I had the guts and I took the heat.”
In the ensuing years, nearly every member of the Tampa City Council has visited the country, some multiple times.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat some criticized for being chilly toward Cuba in prior years, also visited in 2013.
Earlier this year, the council passed a resolution asking that any significant agreement between the U.S. and Cuba be signed at a ceremony in Tampa.
“Since December of 2014 it’s just been very quick-paced,” said Capin. “And I think it’s beneficial to ourself and Cuba. The world has and is paying attention to the relationship of this country and Cuba. And I believe that we will be recognized for our international place.”
Pinellas officials have visited Cuba as well. Fresh from a recent visit there, County Commissioner Janet Long has enthusiastically debated fervent anti-normalization activist Ralph Fernandez during panel discussions in the area.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has said he plans to visit soon as well.
Maura Barrios thinks it’s vital for people “to see for themselves, to travel to Cuba, to be informed about the history of our relationships because we have to understand their point of view also,” Barrios said. “We all come back just obsessed with this place that has been forbidden for so long.”
Perhaps the one notable holdout is Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate who breaks from his party on Cuba.
At a recent event in Tallahassee, according to the Trib’s James Rosica, Buckhorn said he did not want to visit the country “out of respect for a lot of people I represent who fled the Castro regime.”