Tampa has a historic link with Cuba that dates back over a century, but it’s St. Petersburg that is forging the first major cultural exchange with the island nation’s government since relations between it and the U.S. began normalizing a year ago.
With it, St. Petersburg perhaps gains an advantage in the competition to host the first Cuban consulate in the U.S. in more than five decades.
“St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has said that art and culture serve to build relationships and diplomacy,” said Bill Carlson, president of Tucker- Hall, a public relations agency in Tampa that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999. “We are hopeful this leads to a mutually beneficial relationship between Cuba and the Tampa Bay area.”
Carlson was among the area leaders who met with a nine-person cultural and arts delegation representing the Cuban government that visited St. Petersburg in mid-December to discuss exchanges with that city.
One is already underway.
Cuban delegation member and renowned artist Esteban Machado provided eight of his paintings to the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg for an exhibit.
Morean Arts Center curator Amanda Cooper estimates the show will begin in mid-May and run for six weeks, and that Machado will be on hand for the opening to meet guests and host a workshop.
“It was all very spur of the moment,” said Morean CEO Roger Ross. “The Cubans took a tour of our facility and were enamored with it, and we saw his art and were enamored. So we put it together. We’re honored to display his art.”
One member of Cuba’s visiting delegation was Rosa Teresa Rodriguez Lauzurique, director of international relations for her government’s Ministry of Culture. She was in Tampa in March to discuss a cultural exchange program with arts leaders. Although nothing has come of those meetings, St. Petersburg already has one art show set, a major museum exchange being planned and a series of collaborations possibly only a year away.
The Cuban delegation and St. Petersburg leaders also discussed the Salvador Dali Museum providing work from the surrealist painter to the state-run National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana in return for an exhibit from Cuba-born surrealist Wifredo Lam.
“We did a Lam show in the past that was well-received,” said Hank Hine, director of the Dali Museum, via email. “Many of his paintings have not been seen by most Americans, so we’re open to exploring the idea of another, new Lam show.”
Hine noted that besides meeting with the Cuban leaders in St. Petersburg, he traveled to Havana in October as part of a St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership-led delegation and had discussions there with representatives of the National Museum of Fine Arts.
Joni James, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership that sponsored the Cuban delegation’s visit to her city, told the Tribune before the delegation’s arrival she considered the exhibit exchange a matter of when, and not if, although much still has to be done before it occurs.
One holdup is the $4 billion in civil judgments U.S. courts say Cuba owes to American citizens for terror-related crime. The two governments are negotiating a settlement, but until one is made, any art owned by the state-run National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana brought into the U.S. could be confiscated by a plaintiff to settle a claim.
There also was talk of collaborations between Cuban artists and St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District, which covers about 1.5 square miles and consists of over 20 member art galleries, studios and warehouses.
Mark Aeling, owner of Mga Sculpture Studio in the Warehouse Arts District and one of its representatives, proposed to the Cuban leaders a series of events in St. Petersburg and the island nation using their respective artists and combining multiple disciplines such as fashion, painting, writing, music and dance into one performance.
A possible Cuban partner discussed was the state-run National School of Fine Arts.
Soft Water Studios in the Warehouse Arts District already hosts such an event, Aeling said. Called Fantastic Ekphrastic, writers read literary descriptions of visual works of art.
While in Cuba as part of the Downtown Partnership delegation, Aeling attended a similar show with models showing off fashions and performing dances inspired by paintings.
“I said let us combine these events, and the Cuban delegation had an honest interest in the collaboration,” Aeling said. “They will now consult with their government. I am hopeful we can pull this together within the next year.”
Tampa has had a couple of cultural exchanges with Cuba over the past year.
Cuban pop star Laritza Bacallao was a headliner at the Gasparilla Music Festival, and Carlos Varela, who is often referred to as Cuba’s Bob Dylan for his poetic lyrics on social and political issues at home, performed at the Gasparilla International Film Festival.
But those were individual ventures by the festivals’ organizers, while the cultural exchange program between St. Petersburg and Cuba is a concerted effort spearheaded by Kriseman, the Downtown Partnership, and the city’s arts leaders from the Dali Museum, the Warehouse Arts District, Morean Arts Center, St. Petersburg College, Gibbs High School and more.
“St. Petersburg leaders rolled out the red carpet and introduced the Cubans to a thriving arts and cultural scene of St. Petersburg,” said TuckerHall’s Carlson. “There are going to be multiple benefits and collaborative efforts as a result.”
Before the delegation’s arrival, Downtown Partnership CEO James said she would use the opportunity to lobby for the Cuban consulate in St. Petersburg.
“There is no doubt that the delegation left with the best possible impression of St. Petersburg. I think that never hurts when the decision is made,” James said after the visit, but she didn’t expand on specific discussions she had with the Cuban officials.
The timing of the announcement of the first U.S. city to host a Cuban consulate in over 50 years is unknown. While a list of potential sites has not been made public by the Cuban government, it has been rumored that Tampa, St. Petersburg, New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale are among the finalists. Elected officials in Miami, which has the highest Cuban-American population in the U.S., publicly stated they do not want it.
Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Capin met with the delegation in both St. Petersburg and Ybor City and remains confident that the Cuban government will choose her city.
“Though the delegation did not include decisionmakers on where the consulate will go, they do have influence,” she said. “And the delegation was impressed with Tampa’s history with Cuba.”
She pointed out that Ybor City and its thriving cigar industry were built in part by Cuban immigrants, and the island nation’s beloved freedom fighter Jose Marti raised money in Tampa for Cuba’s successful War of Independence from Spain in the late 1800s.
She reminded the delegation the Tampa City Council, Hillsborough County Commission and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce have each passed resolutions in favor of the consulate being in Tampa.
Still, St. Petersburg’s Kriseman traveled to Cuba in August and met with Gustavo Machin, deputy director for American affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is the agency that will decide where to put the first Cuban Consulate.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, on the other hand, has remained on the sidelines in the battle for the consulate. He has said he will not try to prevent a consulate from opening in Tampa, but he will not advocate for it.
The total solidarity of St. Petersburg’s elected officials could be the difference in getting the consulate, just as it was in starting the cultural exchange program, Carlson said.
“Tampa also has a handful of activists who have threatened violence in the streets if a consulate is in Tampa,” he said. “Although Tampa has a long history with Cuba, the Cubans will surely weigh the safety and political issues in choosing whether to take it to Tampa or St. Petersburg.”
As for where the consulate should end up, Carlson says it doesn’t matter.
“As long as it is in the Tampa Bay area, it is good for everyone.”