TAMPA — Tampa has much to gain if trade and travel with Cuba are opened.
So said several speakers Saturday at an Ybor City seminar at the Italian Club, where about 120 business and political leaders gathered to discuss the issue. The event was hosted by the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, a nonprofit anti-embargo group.
Because of Tampa's historical ties with Cuba and the port's proximity to Havana, the city would be the perfect spot for trade, and an opening would bring Tampa lots of money, said Mike Mauricio, the owner of Florida Produce of Hillsborough County Inc.
Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern went to the workshop and said she would like to open up trade with Cuba, for the benefit of Floridians and Cubans.
"The embargo not only has hurt the Cuban people, but it's hurt the cause of democracy," she said.
However, about a half-dozen protesters outside the Italian Club disagreed. Holding "libre Cuba" flags, they said that the United States should only trade with Cuba when it is a democracy.
"We would like to help Cuba when Cuba is free," said Orlando Rodriguez, president of the Cuban Historical and Cultural Center in Tampa.
But inside the meeting, speakers said that breaking away from the status quo would be more helpful than sticking with a policy that hasn't changed Cuban politics.
"It's made little difference in the lives of people in Cuba," U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., said in a conference call with the group.
Delahunt is the author of a bill to end travel restrictions. It has more than 150 House co-sponsors, yet no Florida lawmakers have signed on to the bill.
Attorney and Cuba-policy expert Tony Martinez said politicians have been slow to join the anti-embargo movement, even though it's gaining in popularity with Cuban-Americans.
He pointed to an April poll by Bendixen & Associates that shows 67 percent of Cuban-Americans support allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba, and 43 percent support ending the Cuban embargo.
Many of the speakers urged those in attendance to call or write their elected officials.
Tampa businessman James C. Alberdi, president of an import-export brokerage business, said he became an accidental activist.
Though his Spanish family has no ties to Cuba, he started attending meetings like Saturday's event at the urging of others because he could gain a lot of business if trade with Cuba were opened.
His company, A.J. Arango Inc., is an intermediary in trade deals that come through Tampa International Airport and the Tampa port.
"The more transactions there are, the more we benefit," he said.
But he also said trade would help Cubans, offering them new products and improving their quality of life.
The only downside would be if Cubans became too Americanized.
"I'd like to see them keep their culture," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 695-2297.