On Cuba, Bob Buckhorn’s out of step with many around Tampa Bay, and he’s okay with that
So what’s the deal with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn?
When Cuban officials searching for a possible consulate location toured St. Petersburg but not Tampa over the weekend, Tampa City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said Buckhorn, unlike St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, was hurting his city's chances of getting the consulate.
"It is very sad that our mayor has been AWOL on this subject. Cuba is part of this city's history. He doesn't seem to understand that," she told Tampa Bay Times staff writer Paul Guzzo. "I commend Mayor Kriseman for picking up the baton that Mayor Buckhorn let go and working to keep the Cuban consulate in our area."
Buckhorn is on vacation this week, but his views on the consulate and Tampa’s opportunities — and responsibilities — amid an opening to Cuba are well-documented. In essence, Buckhorn is not inclined to embrace more economic engagement with Cuba until the Castro government in Havana institutes democratic reforms and guarantees that its citizens have broader rights to speak their minds and dissent. He doesn’t oppose other people doing it, but he’s not taking part himself.
This puts Buckhorn, a possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, out of step with much of the bay area’s business and political establishment, which is organizing itself to chase opportunities in Cuba.
It is, however, consistent with Bob Buckhorn being Bob Buckhorn. One of the mayor’s core political principles is that he does not turn his back on his friends. And over three decades in Tampa politics, Buckhorn has worked hard to build friendships with Cuban families in West Tampa who suffered when Fidel Castro came to power.
In 1995, he flew with the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue as it searched for rafters trying to escape to Florida — and that was before Havana shot down two of the group's planes in 1996, killing four men.
In 2002, as a council member (and candidate for mayor), he criticized then-Mayor Dick Greco for going on an unannounced trip to Havana and meeting with Castro. Nine years later, when Buckhorn again ran for mayor, activists reached out to Cuban-American voters, reminded them that Greco met with Castro and organized rides to get them to the polls. Buckhorn edged Greco by less than 1 percent to make the runoff. Since then, Buckhorn has welcomed Cuban exiles and dissidents to City Hall.
Still, one longtime activist said recently, Buckhorn’s focus on the past does not work in his city’s favor.
“You’re not going to undo what’s already been done,” Tampa attorney Dario Diaz said. “There’s going to be more trade. There’s going to be more freedom to travel. If we don’t participate in that, we will be harmed by the people that are willing to participate. For Tampa’s sake it’s better to reach out to make friends, make alliances because if not somebody else will.”
But in an interview with the Times on July 13, Buckhorn said his position is not changing, and on Monday his office said his comments stand. Here’s a partial transcript:
Q — There’s some thinking out there the coming opening with Cuba ought to be something you should be thinking about more and that your disinclination to engage with it could cost Tampa in the long run. There’s a strong sentiment that your lukewarmness could cost Tampa a consulate. If you can deal with Gov. Rick Scott because it’s good for the city, why can’t you do that for a consulate?
Buckhorn — To say that I’m not engaged isn’t an accurate statement. I’m not for it and I’m not against it. I’m not advocating in Washington D.C. against us getting it, nor am I advocating for us getting it.
I think that many of those are advocating for it have no appreciation for the experience of our Cuban citizens — zero — and look at it purely from economic terms as opposed to personal terms and the history of the Cuban people here in Tampa. And I’m just not going to be disrespectful of that. I am respectful of other people’s opinions. And as you have seen I have not gotten in the way of anybody else doing what they choose to. But just for me, personally, it’s just not an issue I’m going to weigh in on.
Q — You dealt with Scott on the University of South Florida medical school for the Jeff Vinik-Cascade project in downtown Tampa. Isn’t a consulate going to benefit the city of Tampa?
Buckhorn — To a far lesser degree than the medical school. I don’t think there’s any comparison, in terms of the economic impact, that that medical school will bring to downtown Tampa versus a consulate, which is basically just an office.
Until I see any measurable improvement with the lives of the Cuban people and any effort to open up Cuba to democratic reform and free speech and freedom of the press and freedom of assembly and freedom of religion, I’ve just got other things to do. If it comes — and it’s not my decision, and what I think really has no bearing on it — if the State Department makes the decision to locate the consulate in Tampa, then I will do what I’m obligated to do by law. We’ll protect the consulate and we’ll protect the diplomats and it will just be another office.
Q — But things are changing, and people are saying we have to think about the future as well as the past.
Buckhorn — We do, and we have to be respectful of the past. And, yes, I would agree that things are changing. And they are moving in the right direction. And I think over the next decade you will see significant changes in the relationship between Cuba and the United States. But I also think it’s got to be a two-way street, and so far it has not been. I think for a lot of people, including many Cuban-Americans, in order for them to be comfortable with this, they would like to see more change on the part of the Cuban government, to open up the Cuban government some of the things that we talked about.
Q — Your experience with Brothers to the Rescue is still vivid in your mind?
Buckhorn — Absolutely. And having been, to the extent that an Anglo can, immersed in our Cuban community for 30 years. And having heard the stories and knowing some of the prisoners and just sort of being a part of it by adoption basically, and recognizing that it’s not something that we can take or treat lightly. I have no doubt that it’s inevitable that over time, that that relationship is going to change. I think that over time, the embargo will be lifted. But I do think it’s got to be a two-way street.
Q — And you don’t think that there’s a risk that in the long run that Tampa could be put at a competitive disadvantage with other places in the United States, other cities in Florida?
Buckhorn — By not having the consulate?
Q — By not embracing more comprehensively the coming change.
Buckhorn — But I think you are seeing the port, the airport, obviously the aquarium’s down there doing some scientific (work). I think you are seeing some of the economic entities that would be on the front lines preparing for this. I don’t think having a consulate here makes one bit of difference in terms of our preparation for what eventually will happen. I mean, literally, we have consulates here anyway. Certainly it’s nice. But it mainly processes visas and travel requests. It’s not an economic engine unto itself. … It’s more symbolic than substantive.
Q — Like you say, the port, the airport, Florida Aquarium, the Chamber of Commerce — basically everybody in town’s working on this except for you.
Buckhorn — My input one way or the other is not going to have any difference on whether or not they relocate the consulate. I do think change is coming.
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.