TAMPA — Sen. Marco Rubio and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce officials chose not to rekindle a fight over new flights to Cuba.
But during a visit here Thursday, the Miami Republican bristled at a reporter's suggestion that he tried to block flights from Tampa to protect Miami travel businesses.
"The idea that I'm a friend of the fly-to-Cuba-from-Miami crowd is absurd," he said at a news conference. "No one would criticize someone going to Cuba to see their dying mother. What we're opposed to is expansion of these new flights from Miami or anywhere else. They add more money to the (Castro) regime."
In February, Rubio proposed an amendment to a Federal Aviation Authority funding bill that would have prohibited any additional flights between the United States and countries, such as Cuba, designated as "state sponsors of terrorism" by the State Department.
At the time, charter flights to Cuba were restricted to three gateway cities: Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
Chamber CEO Robert Rohrlach fired off a letter to Rubio, saying that Rubio's position benefited his hometown of Miami at the expense of Tampa Bay and other Florida metro areas seeking nonstop flights to the island nation.
"I sincerely hope that you will withdraw (the amendment) in order to more accurately reflect the resolve of the entire state as opposed to the interests of a few."
Rubio's amendment failed in the Senate. Tampa International and airports in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Key West subsequently won federal approval for Cuba flights. Charter companies now fly twice weekly from Tampa International to Havana. Two additional weekly flights — one to Havana and one to Holguin — start in November.
The chamber is catching flak for another Cuba initiative. Rohrlach visited the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., earlier this month and asked staffers to start planning a visit to Tampa by Jorge Bolanos, the chief of mission there.
"It's something we should do to show them (Cuba flights) are a big deal to us," Rohrlach said.
In a letter this week to Rubio, Sen. Bill Nelson and Tampa City Council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern, longtime anti-Castro activist Ralph Fernandez objected to the chamber's efforts to facilitate trade with Cuba that could result in a member of the Cuban Interest Section visiting Tampa.
"That would be a debacle," said Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer who has represented former political prisoners.
In late 2002, a Cuban diplomat who helped organize Mayor Dick Greco's trip to Cuba earlier that year was accused of espionage and expelled from the United States. Oscar Redondo and another man, Gustavo Machin Gomez, both of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, were declared "persona non grata" by the U.S. government and ordered to leave the country.
At the time, Fernandez said he had told Greco two years before that Redondo was engaged in espionage. On Thursday, Rubio said he hadn't seen the letter from Fernandez about the chamber's overture to Cuban officials.
Rubio did address the controversy over whether he wrongly portrayed his family as exiles fleeing Cuba after Fidel Castro's takeover in 1959. The family, it was revealed in news reports this month, actually left as immigrants to the United States three years earlier.
"The story is the same one," he said. "My family came here from Cuba in search of a better life."
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.