TAMPA — On its third try, the City Council voted Thursday to send a letter of greetings to the government of Cuba marking the "historic" resumption of direct commercial flights between Tampa and Havana.
The vote came at the request of council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern, who this month traveled to Havana after the flights began again for the first time since 1962.
"You do business with the people you know and trust," she said, adding that's why she's working to improve relationships between Havana and Tampa, its airport, port and agricultural community.
"If Tampa doesn't work diligently to expand our dialogue with Cuba, we are going to be left out in the cold when the Cold War ends," she said.
But council member Mike Suarez, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said it was inappropriate for the council to send a letter to a foreign national government, especially one from which the United States is diplomatically estranged.
"My point is only about government-to-government communication," said Suarez, who said he applauds those who want to open trade and communication with Cuba. "I don't believe we should make government-to-government communications from this council to governments that do not have normalized relations with the U.S. government."
Thursday's discussion followed others on Sept. 8 and 15, neither of which included public comment on the issue. On Thursday, however, at least half a dozen residents spoke in favor of a gesture like the letter, and more.
"That's history," said Al Arteaga, 93, who went on the first flight and praised their ability to help people who live in Tampa connect with relatives in Cuba. "I was very happy and I was hoping this would continue. Cuba needs it and we also need it. … I think we should start talking."
Ybor City businessman Don Barco said, "We're not living in the 1960s."
"It's been said that we shouldn't have government-to-government business," he said. "But right now, as we speak, there are ports in Mobile and New Orleans and Jacksonville that are doing business with Cuba."
Local political consultant Victor DiMaio went further, saying that when he went to Cuba, he saw a vibrant people and "tremendous opportunities," but "my own country is needlessly punishing these people because of the ignorance of a dying 50-year-old dream."
"We trade and travel openly with communist China and communist Vietnam," DiMaio said. "We need to drop the stupid embargo, and you, the Tampa City Council, have the freedom to make a statement here and now that you want things to change for our people and our city and our country."