Gov. Rick Scott warned Florida's ports via Twitter on Wednesday not to do business with Cuba, a day before a delegation of Cuban maritime leaders arrive in the state hoping to strengthen business ties here.
"Disappointed some FL ports would enter into any agreement with Cuban dictatorship," Scott wrote. "I will recommend restricting state funds for ports that work with Cuba in my budget."
Whether Port Tampa Bay was planning on entering into an agreement with Cuba remained unclear.
The Cuban delegation visits Tampa on Feb. 1 and 2 and the Tampa port had planned to sign a memorandum of understanding, proposing they start discussing business opportunities allowed under U.S. law, said Patrick Allman, a member of the Tampa port's governing board.
What's more, Allman said, the memorandum had been approved by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the U.S. Treasury Department agency that administers and enforces trade sanctions against Cuba.
"I was under the understanding that we were doing this," Allman said. "With what the governor said, I'm not sure now."
But another port official, communications vice president Edward Miyagishima, said there were no plans in Tampa to sign a memorandum of understanding, either before or after the governor posted his tweets.
"Not to my knowledge," Miyagishima said. "We are not going to look at an MOU until we get an okay from OFAC. We are taking a very conservative approach."
Miyagishima said the Tampa visit isn't part of an official port tour. Rather, the delegation is headed here for a conference of the American Association of Port Authorities, called "Planning for Shifting Trade," at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.
Another observer tracking the Cuban delegation, John Kavulich of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said he, too, had received word a memorandum would be signed, from "someone directly involved with the Cuba delegation."
Three of the documents were to be signed during the Cuban delegation's Florida visit, Kavulich said — with Port Tampa Bay next week, Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale today, and the Port of Palm Beach during a visit there today through Friday.
The two South Florida ports announced last week they would sign memoranda with the Cuban delegation to open discussions on future business possibilities.
Asked how the governor's tweet affected plans by the Port of Palm Beach, executive director Manuel Almira said Wednesday, "We are not ready to answer that question yet." Port Everglades could not be reached Wednesday.
"It would be a shame to see Port Tampa Bay give in to political pressure over what is good for our local economy and businesses, and for the Cuban people," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who has been pushing to open relations with Cuba.
A travel and trade embargo was imposed after Cuba embraced communism in the 1960s. Former President Barack Obama moved to normalize relations.
Shortly after issuing the warning, Gov. Scott doubled down during a Wednesday news conference in Tampa where he announced proposed tax cuts for the new state budget.
"I don't believe any port in our state, none of them, should be doing business with a brutal dictator," Scott told reporters.
He clarified that his warning was aimed at seaports only, not airports. Commercial flights serving Havana recently resumed from Tampa and other U.S. cities after more than five decades.
Scott's office later told the Tampa Bay Times that the tweets were sent following the news that Port of Palm Beach and Port Everglades would be signing memoranda of understanding this week. Port Tampa Bay was not mentioned by the governor's office.
Scott's threat to cut funding would be reflected in the spending proposal he sends lawmakers, who decide the state budget.
But the governor's tweet also caught the attention of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who sits on the governing board of Port Tampa Bay and opposes engagement with Cuba.
"The governor controls the purse strings for a lot of the investment in our port," Buckhorn said. "The state has contributed tens of millions of dollars to port-related infrastructure. We're counting on that money moving forward."
Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald and Richard Danielson of the Tampa Bay Times contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.