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Tampa chamber's third trip to Cuba looks to lay the foundation for future business

By Richard Danielson
Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chairman Ronald Christaldi talks to doctors and nurses at the Institute of Oncology & Radiology in Havana. [Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce]

TAMPA — A 35-member business delegation returned from a four-day trip to Cuba over the weekend optimistic about the Tampa Bay area's prospects to renew relations and commerce once the U.S. trade embargo on the island is lifted.

"This chamber's role is to position the Tampa Bay region to be ready to do business in Cuba, with Cuba, importing and exporting, when the switch gets flipped," Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chairman Ronald Christaldi said at a news conference Monday.

How and when the switch gets flipped is a matter for government officials, not them, they said. Beyond saying the region needs to be ready for change, business leaders didn't take any positions on what the Obama administration is doing about normalizing diplomatic relations with Havana.

"Our business is commerce, first and foremost," Christaldi said. "This Tampa Bay region has a long, historic tradition of trade and commerce going back to the 16th century with Cuba." That, he said, is what chamber hopes to renew and build upon when the time comes.

The trip was the third the chamber had organized, and the only reason it wasn't bigger was there weren't any available seats on the plane, chamber president Bob Rohrlack said.

The bay area group visited three cities, Havana, Cojimar and the resort town of Varadero, met with the head of the U.S. interest section in Cuba, toured a national oncology and radiology institute and talked with officials about the enterprise zone that Cuba is building around the port at Mariel.

They also saw lots of signs that other U.S. cities (New Orleans, Charlotte) and states (New York), are making connections in Cuba and that foreign investors are already on the ground. They saw the Canadian flag at Cuban commercial buildings and arrived the day after a visit by French President François Hollande.

"Florida and the Tampa Bay region cannot afford to stand flat-footed while the rest of the world positions itself to take advantage of this economic opportunity," Christaldi said. "We, as a country, are a little bit behind. ... The foreign investment has already begun."

To restore the relationship, chamber officials have supported the idea of establishing a Cuban consulate in Tampa — it was here until 1959 — and think the first steps the bay area needs to take after the embargo is lifted include pursuing more flights to Cuba from Tampa International Airport, facilitating commerce through Port Tampa Bay and fostering business relationships in areas like health care and tourism.

Still, they acknowledged, it will take time as Cuba's needs for roads, information technology and reliable banking are addressed and the economy begins to grow.

"We do not have Switzerland 90 miles away; it's Cuba," Tampa International Airport chief executive Joe Lopano said. Still, Tampa has more than 10 flights a week to Cuba that generate $1 million a year for the airport. More flights would mean more benefits as tourism to Cuba grows.

The potential for cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries is huge, former University of South Florida president and state legislator Betty Castor said. During the trip, the Tampa delegation saw a dozen students from Washington State University on an academic tour.

Currently, however, students and faculty members from public universities in Florida are banned from making research or study trips to Cuba.

"I hope that that changes," said Castor, who chairs the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

The state's ban is tied to Cuban's position on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. If the U.S. took Cuba off that list, Castor said, the statutory hurdle ought to disappear. But she also noted that the Florida Board of Governors, the appointed body that runs the state university system, has taken the position that state universities cannot establish exchange programs with Cuba until the Washington establishes normal diplomatic ties with Havana.

The Miami Herald reported last month that board spokeswoman Brittany Davis wrote to Florida International University that "once diplomatic relations are restored, any requests to conduct scholarly activities located in Cuba will follow the normal processes for university approval."

While the Tampa chamber has passed a resolution calling for a consulate to be established in Tampa and for any two-country diplomatic accord to be signed here, it has not taken a position on the state's ban on educational exchanges.

"I think eventually the Board of Governors will see the wisdom because there will be a lot of academic exchanges," Castor said.

While a critic — specifically, Tampa attorney and anti-Castro activist Ralph Fernandez, speaking to the New York Times — has questioned the idea of chasing business in a country with buying power comparable to the city of Lakeland's, chamber members said the potential is there.

"We consider a 12 million-population country as a pretty big deal," said Richard Barkett, chief operating officer of Amalie Oil, which exports to about 100 countries.

"The economy today because of the embargo may be smaller, but we believe the potential there is much bigger," Christaldi said. Then, though he said the chamber was leaving the diplomacy to the government, he added: "Lakeland, also, is a wonderful place. ... Many of our businesses would cherish the opportunity to court businesses in the city of Lakeland."

Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times