TAMPA -- The first charter flight from Tampa International Airport to Cuba in nearly 50 years took off Sept. 8 -- the feast day of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint -- and since then, Tampa hasn’t quite been the same.
There has been a flurry of Cuba-related activity in the Tampa Bay area -- the likes of which would be hard to imagine in South Florida -- starting with the letter of friendly greetings that the Tampa City Council sent to Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly.
Since charter service began, the president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce says he’s planning a trip to Cuba, there’s been an invitation extended to Cuban diplomats in Washington to visit Tampa business leaders, the Tampa-based Florida Orchestra sent a contingent of musicians to Cuba on a cultural exchange, and the Tampa Port Authority held a seminar on potential trade opportunities with the island.
Meanwhile, plans to try to position Tampa as the gateway for travel and trade with Cuba gain momentum in the business community.
“We think Tampa is a perfect place as a gateway city to Cuba,” says Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Bay Democrat who has championed lifting all restrictions on travel to Cuba and lobbied hard for the Tampa charter flights.
People traveling to Cuba could come to Tampa, she says, and take an immersion course in Cuban history, learn Spanish and walk the narrow brick streets of Ybor City, the Tampa neighborhood where Cuban patriot José Martí rallied cigar workers to lend their support in the Cuban War for Independence against Spain in the 1890s.
“Miami has great Cuban historical and cultural ties but Tampa Bay does, too,” she says.
For Castor, who also thinks the embargo has “outlived its usefulness,” cementing Tampa’s status as a gateway city is all about creating jobs, especially for small businesses such as motels and hotels in Ybor City, restaurants and shops. “The No. 1 issue is jobs and the economy in my area,” she says.
But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, says such efforts are misguided: “I find it unfortunate when some look to partner with the Cuban regime and place the value of dollars over the value of people. There are many city officials and businesses throughout the U.S. who are advocating a lifting of all travel restrictions but this goes far beyond humanitarian family travel and would further enrich the Cuban tyranny.”
While there have been some dissenting voices in Tampa’s long-established Cuban community, Castor says most Cuban-Americans there are supportive of increasing linkages with Cuba. “The Tampa Bay area is a little bit different from Miami, and Tampa Bay Cubans are different from those who came to Miami after Castro’s revolution. They have different ties to the island and are not quite as strident,” she says.
“We have a long-standing history with Cuba that transcends what has happened in Cuba over the past 50 years,” says Tom Keating, president and chief executive of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.
It dates back to 1886 when Vicente Martinez Ybor opened the first cigar factory. Master cigar workers from Cuba and Key West settled in casitas, or cottages, that surrounded the brick cigar factories, and at Martí’s urging, many pledged a day’s salary per week in support of Cuban independence.
Keating says the new flights to Cuba offer an opportunity to play up such connections.
Setting up the opening in travel was President Barack Obama’s decision in 2009 to allow unlimited travel to the island by Cuban Americans.
Then at the beginning of the year, he followed that by authorizing people-to-people exchanges that allow more Americans to visit Cuba and lifting some restrictions on travel by religious and academic groups. The president also increased the number of U.S. and Puerto Rican airports that could provide charter service to Cuba from three to 15.
“As policy toward Cuba changes, we want to take advantage of it,” Keating says.
Shortly before the new flights began, Castor convened a brainstorming session with business owners, representatives from both the Ybor City and West Tampa chambers of commerce, tourism officials and the Ybor City Development Corp. to come up with ways to market Tampa to families, and educational and cultural groups as the “jumping-off point” for Cuba travel.
Now three charter companies offer four weekly flights between Tampa and Cuba. By the end of the year, they are expected to carry 8,874 passengers, says Janet Zink, a spokeswoman for Tampa International Airport.
But that pales compared to Miami International Airport, which handled nearly 320,000 Cuba-bound passengers last year and expects even more this year.
Still, Zink says, “There’s no question about it, we consider ourselves an alternative to Miami. There’s a very strong effort here in Tampa, not only by the airport, to strengthen ties with Cuba.”
That’s what Tampa Councilwoman Mary Mulhern was trying to do when she proposed sending a letter of goodwill to the president of Cuba’s parliament to mark the inauguration of the charter flights and to express a desire to expand them and explore “future opportunities.”
During one discussion about the letter, Councilman Mike Suarez objected, saying, “Our role as City Council is not to make international policy.”
After three rounds of discussion, the City Council finally voted on Sept. 22 to send the letter -- two weeks after the inaugural flight and after Mulhern had already flown and returned from a quick trip to Cuba.
In an editorial before the vote, The St. Petersburg Times noted that “the last thing Tampa needs is to reprise the Cold War dramas over Cuba that too often drag down the political discourse in Miami” and urged the council to “focus on the progress this nation and the community are finally making on reuniting two nations with a shared heritage.”
Albert Fox, a former Washington lobbyist who has made some 80 trips to Cuba and arranged visits by members of Congress and governors, says he finally hand-delivered the letter to Jorge Bolaños, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Adding to the Cuba drama in Tampa Bay is the aborted visit of two Cuban diplomats -- First Secretary Raul Sánchez and Juan Jacomino, second secretary and press attaché at the interests section.
Normally, such Cuban officials aren’t permitted to travel beyond the Beltway and they must ask special permission of the State Department to venture further afield.
But Fox -- the founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuban Policy Foundation, which supports normalization of relations with Cuba -- and a coalition of business executives extended the invitation and began arranging meetings. Fox says the Tampa chamber, executives at the port and airport, and the Florida Citrus Mutual had all agreed to meet with the Cuban diplomats.
He says the Oct. 26 trip was canceled because the State Department said paperwork wasn’t in order. A new date of Nov. 9 was set, says Fox, but the State Department denied the travel request. Castor questioned the turn-down, especially since Bolaños had permission to speak in Ohio in mid-November. Castor said the State Department told her it was responding to travel restrictions on the new U.S. station chief in Havana and the Ohio trip “was planned and approved well before.”
Ros-Lehtinen, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, does not favor Cuban diplomats traveling around the United States.