Former car dealer Carl Lindell wanted to press the flesh with Cuban officials to promote trade through Tampa's port. But fellow port commissioners passed on his plan Tuesday, preferring to let Washington take the lead in talks to expand business dealings with the island nation.
"It is a national strategy, not a local strategy," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "It is in capable hands with our president and will probably ultimately lead to open trade."
Florida ports handle just 6 percent of U.S. agricultural products and medical supplies shipped to Cuba, the only legal exports under current law, port director Richard Wainio said. Only occasional fertilizer and animal feed shipments come from the Tampa Bay area. The vast majority of U.S. shipments consist of grain grown in the Midwest and shipped from Louisiana and Texas.
If trade restrictions are lifted, Wainio said, Tampa is well positioned to prosper. The port has embarked on a major expansion of container cargo facilities, and Cuba would make an ideal destination for short cruises from Tampa.
Lindell, now a real estate developer, urged commissioners to support a trade mission. The trip would signal to Cuban officials the port wants to do more business and pressure the area members of Congress to push for ending the embargo, he said.
"Part of our responsibilities are to tell the politicians maybe it is time to resist these policies," Lindell said.
Tampa attorney Joe Bryant told port commissioners that government officials he met with in Cuba put Florida at the top of their list for trade partners.
Other ports such as Jacksonville and Mobile, Ala., visit regularly to promote themselves, but not Tampa.
"These other ports are light-years ahead of us," Bryant said.
Wainio warned commissioners that making trips to Cuba could alienate powerful anti-Castro politicians in Tallahassee and Washington.
"You can't separate trade issues from U.S. policy toward Cuba," he said.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.