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Tampa mayor Buckhorn honors Cuban-Americans who fought at Bay of Pigs

TAMPA

Tampa politicians often speak in favor of expanding trade and travel to Cuba. In 2002, the city's then-Mayor Dick Greco even visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro, infuriating many local Cuban-Americans.

On Tuesday, about a dozen Tampa residents with Cuban roots found a noticeable shift in discourse as Mayor Bob Buckhorn honored the men involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion on the historic event's 51st anniversary, particularly Tampa's retired U.S. Army Col. Orlando Rodriguez, 77.

Buckhorn said the signed proclamation was simply a matter of honoring heroes, but to the Cuban-Americans who met at his office, "It's the difference between right and wrong," said attorney Ralph Fernandez.

"To us, it's very important," said Mario Quevedo, who had asked Buckhorn to consider a proclamation. "For the last couple of years, all we've heard about Cuba is travel, tourism and trade, but it's the same people we fought against 51 years ago."

Though Buckhorn's proclamation doesn't make any changes or promises, it was a big enough deal that Félix Rodríguez — a former CIA officer famous for his interrogation of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara shortly before his execution — flew in from Miami for the presentation.

"We have to honor our martyrs who died during that time," Rodríguez said. "To us, it's an honor to get a recognition from the mayor."

He gave Buckhorn a black-and-white photo of himself standing next to a captured Guevara in 1967.

Tampa's mayor is no stranger to Cuban exiles' concerns. He flew with Brothers to the Rescue in the mid 1990s, searching for rafters off Florida's coast in need of help.

"I saw their desire for freedom," he said Tuesday.

Trade and travel with Cuba is a touchy subject in Tampa, where, in recent years, politicians often have supported it as a matter of economic sense.

With the Port of Tampa and a major international airport in town, it could mean expanded business opportunities.

However, when Buckhorn ran for mayor, he said he'd prefer to focus on expanding trade with other Latin-American countries, not Cuba.

Meanwhile, council member Mary Mulhern traveled to Cuba in 2009 and 2011, and at an anti-embargo meeting two years ago, she said she supported open trade with Cuba.

Outside the meeting, protesters waved "libre Cuba" signs.

In September, she requested the City Council vote to send a letter of greetings to the government of Cuba, marking the start of flights between Tampa and Havana.

On the third attempt, her motion passed. Council member Mike Suarez was the lone dissenter.

To those at Tuesday's event, relations with Cuba's government is a moral issue — and that letter was wrong, they said.

Also at Tuesday's event were two Tampa men who participated in the Bay of Pigs.

One of them — Carlos Garcia, 80, of Tampa — said Buckhorn's proclamation is wonderful. Garcia's only regret: "That I went to Cuba."

"We were pawns," he said as the group filed out of Buckhorn's office. "They sent us to get killed."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Tampa mayor Buckhorn honors Cuban-Americans who fought at Bay of Pigs 04/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 11:55pm]
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