TAMPA — Whenever Cuban-Americans want a taste of home, they head for Arco-Iris, a restaurant on Columbus Drive not far from Raymond James Stadium. Regulars would agree that the picadillo, roast pork and plantains at the West Tampa institution are the best in town, but that doesn't mean they agree about politics. At a typically busy lunchtime, people who think the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba is a farce rub elbows with those who regard any relations with the island nation as collaboration with a totalitarian state. It's the embargo that prohibits U.S. tourism to Cuba.
I had lunch recently (and separately) with two regulars at the restaurant who are on opposite sides of the Florida Orchestra's cultural exchange with Cuba. Jose Valiente, a Tampa accountant, born in a small town outside Havana, is in favor of it and heads the orchestra's committee on the project. Ralph Fernandez, a lawyer in Tampa and a native of Havana, scorns it as propaganda to enhance the standing of the Castro government.
Valiente, a past chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, supported the embargo until he had an epiphany in 2003. "I realized that if the intent of the embargo was to bring change to Cuba, it has failed, because nothing has changed," he said. "If it was up to me, I'd lift the embargo tomorrow for the simple reason that the real victims of this whole conflict are the people of Cuba. The embargo doesn't hurt the government."
Fernandez, a longtime anti-Castro activist who has represented former political prisoners of Cuba, has nothing but contempt for Valiente's change of heart. "I wish I could say it was a matter of principal, but instead I think it's a matter of money," he said. "All these carpetbaggers jump from one thing to the next. Business, trade, agriculture, the orchestra. They're promoters. They'll do anything to get themselves to Havana and ingratiate themselves with the government, under the fallacy that there is going to be a payback that is positive. Whatever the latest project with Cuba is, you've got the Jose Valientes of the world working on it."
Valiente readily acknowledges that there is an economic rationale behind the orchestra's exchange with Cuba, and has made fundraising calls to provide support for it. He made his first trip back to his homeland in 47 years in 2010. "Cuba has to be rebuilt from one end to the other," he said. "Tampa has a tremendous port that is ready to service the volume of business that will take place when Cuba opens up. The economic windfall is going to be enormous."
After this fall's concert in Havana by a Florida Orchestra wind quintet, the cultural exchange is intended to have several more installments. Music director Stefan Sanderling is committed to conduct the Cuban National Symphony, though a date has not been set. Enrique Perez Mesa, the Cuban music director, will lead the Florida Orchestra in May. Ultimately, the full orchestra would go to Cuba, perhaps in 2013. It's also possible the Cuban National Symphony could play in the bay area.
Fernandez, who says his position on relations with Cuba has softened, can still sound harsh. At one point, he likened the orchestra performing in Cuba to "playing for the Taliban." But he is enough of a realist to recognize the appeal of the project, though he objects to describing it as a cultural exchange. "I'd rather call it what it is," he said. "I think it's a great junket for people who want to see a prohibited place, where other people have not been able to go before. If it's for the benefit of our orchestra, then great. I'm a hometown kind of guy. But don't tell me that it helps anybody in Cuba. It affects so few there, because of the restricted society, that it doesn't change much, except it plays into this lifelong promotion by the Cuban regime to change how the world sees them."
Valiente takes a jab at Fernandez — "These hard-core people don't really care about Cuba. They want revenge. And for me, that window is closed." — but mainly stays on the high road in responding. "I don't think the orchestra's cultural exchange will be anything but positive," he said. "Exchanging cultural ideas. Totally, 100 percent nonpolitical. Sharing each other's musical talents and knowledge. The more we talk with each other, the better."