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Tampa makes Cuba inroads in first year of normalization

Friday, December 18, 2015   (0 Comments)
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TAMPA — If there were any doubts Tampa was eager to make the most of better relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the year since it happened puts them to rest.

Civic and elected officials have advocated for a Cuban consulate here, started cultural exchange programs, forged an environmental research partnership and welcomed Cuban dignitaries to both sides of the bay.

Pundits call it D-17, a year ago Thursday, Dec. 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama announced the two countries had agreed to work toward normalizing relations after five decades of isolation from one another.

“This has been the most remarkable year of progress in normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, citing the opening of embassies in both countries in 2015 as the peak. “Tampa played a critical role in making that happen by building continued support for normalization that Washington could not ignore. I believe the entire Tampa area will continue to do so.”

Castor certainly will.

She plans her second trip to Cuba around Presidents Day in February, accompanied by

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minnesota. The two are co-sponsors of the Cuba Trade Act that would formally lift the travel and trade embargo imposed by the U.S. on Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power and embraced communism.

Castor’s trip to Cuba in 2013 was considered a turning point for U.S. relations with the island nation. When she returned, she called for an end to the embargo — making her the first member of Congress to do so from a state long dominated by anti-Castro interests.

Castor and Emmer will use this trip as a fact-finding mission to further support their cause.

Castor will also speak with Cuban leaders about ways her constituents can continue interacting with a people and a culture intertwined since Cubans first started coming here more than a century ago.

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A second year of interaction kicks off immediately, though, with a visit to St. Petersburg on Thursday by a delegation of Cuban officials representing the nation’s arts and cultural institutions. They’ll meet with St. Petersburg civic leaders and elected officials including Mayor Rick Kriseman to discuss an exchange of exhibits.

St. Petersburg’s Salvador Dalí Museum would provide work from the surrealist painter. In return, the National Fine Arts Museum would send an exhibit from Cuba-born surrealist Wifredo Lam.

“There is a lot to be worked out before anything begins,” said Joni James, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, which is meeting with the Cuban delegation. “But we are confident this is the beginning of something extraordinary.”

Also part of the delegation will be Rafael Polanco, head of Cuba’s José Martí Cultural Society, a non-governmental organization dedicated to preserving and spreading the history of the freedom fighter who helped Cuba achieve independence from Spain.

It was from Tampa that Martí raised money for the cause and wrote the order launching war.

In June, Polanco named Tampa the first U.S. city to host a chapter of his organization, which has branches in 92 other countries. While here, he will continue to work with members of the Tampa community to launch the Martí initiative.

Next, in February, the University of South Florida will send librarians to the Havana Book Fair to purchase materials from Cuban authors in genres such as Latin American science fiction and children’s literature, which are difficult to acquire in the U.S.

Until the start of normalization a year ago, Florida law prohibited a public university or college from funding travel to Cuba.

A 2006 statute prohibits the use of state university money on travel to countries designated sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. State Department, as Cuba was from 1981 until late May.

In addition, a 1996 Florida statute prohibits state agency personnel from traveling to a country in the Western Hemisphere with which the U.S. lacks diplomatic relations. The U.S. and Cuba fell under that category until July, when the Cuban Embassy opened in Washington.

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In February or March, Tampa’s Florida Aquarium will return to Cuba to meet with counterparts from the National Aquarium of Havana for a news conference and ceremonial signing of a coral reef research partnership. Officially signed in August, this collaboration is the first ever between aquariums from the two nations.

In addition, the Gasparilla Music Festival plans to host a headlining act from Cuba during the annual event March 12-13. Last year’s headliner was Cuban pop star Laritza Bacallao.

What’s more, the Gasparilla International Film Festival from March 30–April 3 confirmed it will again host a Cuban sidebar of films.

At the 2015 event, the festival premiered “The Poet of Havana,” which explores the life of musician Carlos Varela, often referred to as Cuba’s Bob Dylan for his poetic lyrics on social and political issues at home. Following the screening, Varela performed live.

The film was discovered at the festival by HBO and since broadcast on the cable network.

At some point during the first quarter of 2016, construction will begin on the first new Catholic Church in Cuba in over 50 years, with much of the cost covered by Tampa’s St. Lawrence Catholic Church.

The church raised $95,000 as of November and donated it to the diocese in Pinar Del Rio province, where the church will be located in the city of Sandino.

The property has been fenced off, the needed lumber is in storage and organizers are in the process of setting up a reservoir for water.

This April, Tampa could host a Cuban event of a different kind — one dedicated to ousting the Communist government rather than working with it.

Tampa is a leading candidate to host the second annual Cuban National Conference, which brings together opposition organizations from Cuba, the United States and across Latin America. At the first conference, held in Puerto Rico, 54 groups attended.

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A move that stands to closely bind Cuba with Tampa would be choosing the area as the site of the first Cuban consulate in the U.S. for more than 50 years.

In 2015, both the Tampa and St. Petersburg city councils unanimously passed resolutions in favor of having the respective cities host a consulate. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce also backed the move and traveled to Cuba to lobby its leaders.

So did St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who visited Cuba for that purpose.

The Cuba delegation visiting this week will be reminded of St. Petersburg’s interest, said James with the downtown partnership.

And Castor will pitch her district during her meetings in Cuba this February.

“It’s coming to Tampa,” she insisted.

Actions that followed from Obama’s D-17 initiative during the past year already have benefitted Tampa and its Cuban-American population, the third largest in the country.

Postal service between the two nations has restarted and travel to Cuba is now allowed for U.S. citizens under the simple general license as long as the trip is for more than tourism.

In 2015, 71,462 passengers traveled between Tampa and the island nation — an increase of 10,000 from the year before.

The flights have been operated by charter companies, but the U.S. government hopes to negotiate commercial airline flights to Cuba in the coming months.

“When that happens, travel to Cuba will continue to increase with Tampa International Airport playing a big role,” Castor said.

During her meetings in Cuba, Castor said she also will do what she can do get the Cuban government to approve porting of U.S. ferry services there. One ferry company is Manatee County-based Havana Ferry Partners, which already has U.S. approval.

CEO Jorge Fernandez has met with Cuban ambassador Jose Ramon Cabanas Rodriguez a few times on the issue. Fernandez plans to launch the service from Port Manatee.

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Then there are the plans by Tampa exporter Florida Produce, operated by Manuel Fernandez and Mike Mauricio, to find warehouses for lease in and around Havana. The Cuban government hasn’t reciprocated yet on approving American businesses to open locations there, which now is permitted under U.S. licenses.

“I will certainly be pressing on their endeavor,” Castor said.

Castor noted that her constituents sought to rekindle their ties with Cuba even before D-17.

She cited as examples the cultural exchange between 2011 and 2013 that saw Tampa’s Florida Orchestra perform in Cuba and Havana’s National Symphony Orchestra perform in Tampa as well as a 2014 visit to Cuba by the University of Tampa baseball team to play ball.

The new church and the aquarium deal also began in the months before D-17.

Now, Castor said, Tampa is reaping the reward of such efforts.

“Leaders in Tampa Bay have been engaged with Cuba for 20 years or more and we have a longer history with Cuba that any other place in the United States,” said Bill Carlson, president of TuckerHall, a public relations agency in Tampa that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999. “We have a competitive advantage over other places.”

The region’s desire to work with the people of Cuba is well known to the island’s leaders, said Albert A. Fox Jr., founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

For that reason, the visiting Cuban delegation plans to present St. Petersburg with a present, Fox said — a painting by delegation member Esteban Machado of a baseball player standing in an ocean, half calm and half turbulent, and hitting a baseball bearing the number 17 to represent D-17.

Cuban officials appreciated the initiative of Mayor Kriseman in trying to land the consulate and cultural exchanges for his city.

Fox has been part of more than 100 delegations to Cuba and said the visit by Kriseman was more well-received than any.

“They have been serious, respectful and insightful negotiations,” Fox said. “I believe Mayor Rick Kriseman and the St. Pete Downtown Partnership did more for U.S.-Cuba relations in their first 55 days on the issue than Florida has done in 55 years.”

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