Differences on Cuba glaringly obvious in Tampa Bay despite "thaw"

As debate raged on the internet over the true colors of a party dress, a more serious discussion on US-Cuba relations, and one with eons more shelf life, took place on the USF St. Pete campus as part of the St. Petersburg in the World conference.

Much like those debating the dress, the panelists' views were divergent and subjective on a deeply complicated issue, one that has sparked extensive debate in the public sphere since President Obama announced he would seek to normalize relations with the country (though lifting the embargo would be unlikely, given that it's something Congress has to do). As yet, little has happened beyond conversation.

“There's been a thaw, significantly, to use Cold War terminology, in US-Cuban relations, but it's not a huge embrace by any means," said USF St. Pete assistant professor of political science Felipe Mantilla, the panel's moderator. "And in terms of substantive change, not much has happened yet.”

But some think there shouldn't even be a dialogue; that the country is too far gone and too well aligned with countries that are anti-US for relations between the two nations to become normal.

Tampa lawyer Ralph Fernandez, who was brought to Florida from Cuba as a child, is staunchly and outspokenly opposed to opening up relations with the country.

“I really believe this president was genuine,” he said. “Just because something hasn't worked, like our battle against cancer has not defeated the deadly disease and the War on Drugs...poverty, and so forth. Some wars are meant to be waged forever. This one, I think is going to take a thousand years.”

Another panelist, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, disagreed.

Long, who recently visited the country, said there would be major economic opportunities if the US and Cuba were to normalize relations.

“Most of the rest of the nations in the world have a presence within Cuba," Long said. "They are visiting there, they are taking vacations there and they're enjoying the magnificent beaches and incredible weather. There would be many opportunities. Not only for Florida, but especially for the Tampa Bay area.”

She added that it's the citizens of Cuba who suffer from the embargo, from not having easy access to credit and the internet, and that those who use the country's human rights abuses as a reason for not engaging are being dishonest.

“We constantly talk about the inability to move forward on Cuba because of their philosophy and their approach to human rights," Long said. "And to that I say, I find it a tiny bit disingenuous when you think that we certainly have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia...or even China.”

Fernandez said a major part of the problem is the Castro regime, which not only violates human rights in its own country, but also, allegedly, aligns with the US's enemies abroad.

“Sadly, in 2001, people forget when Fidel Castro was visiting Tehran, three or two and a half months before the tragedy at the Trade Center, he said that Iran and Cuba would bring America to its knees," he said. "Fortuitously, Fidel Castro did not."

So, yeah, it's pretty friggin' complicated.

The hour-long conversation meandered at times, and it was clear no one was budging. The moderator's conclusion?

“I think there can be very little doubt that Cuba is in dire straits due to the collapsing price of oil," Mantilla said at the panel's conclusion. "Those who have boosted it have been basically funded by oil and the collapsing price basically puts Cuba in a very weak position. And now I think there can be a sincere and honest disagreement about what that means from the US perspective. When a foe...is weak, do you get tougher and wait for them to fall, or is this a good moment to become their last lifeline. And if the US becomes the last lifeline for Cuba, perhaps we'll have much more leverage for shaping a transition. And that disagreement, that strategic disagreement about how to proceed in the context of a weakened Cuba, is something on which I think intelligent people can disagree on.”