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With eye on trade embargo, Tampa City Council ponders way to reach out to Cuba

TAMPA — Now that commercial passenger planes again fly nonstop from Tampa to Havana, should the City Council send a letter of greetings to the Cuban government?

That question has come up at the council twice, last week and again Thursday. So far, only this is likely: Council members probably will talk about it a third time, at a meeting next week.

On Sept. 8, council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern, who was scheduled to fly to Cuba on one of the first direct commercial flights from Tampa since 1962, asked colleagues to join her in a letter "basically saying hello to Cuba."

"It's a historic occasion for us," she said. She requested the council "support my bringing these greetings to the Cuban government and acknowledging and celebrating our opening up at least of commercial flights to Cuba."

But while council member Mike Suarez said he applauded the fact Mulhern was going, he could not support her request.

The letter would make it appear that the council is talking "government to government to (Cuban National Assembly President) Ricardo Alarcon," he said.

"I don't think at this time this is the proper way for us to present our credentials or to even say hello to the people of Cuba through this particular letter," he said then. "I just can't support it."

After less than 2½ minutes of discussion, the council dropped the subject.

Then on Thursday, Mulhern said she wanted to report to the council next week on her trip. Council member Lisa Montelione said maybe then the council could revisit the idea of the letter, perhaps saying "thanks for hosting your visit on behalf of council."

Again, Suarez said, "our role as City Council is not to make international policy."

It's not, Mulhern said, but Tampa does need to position itself to trade with Cuba when the embargo ends, just as other U.S. cities are doing.

"When we send the message that we are not supporting the idea of opening up our relationships with Cuba, we are going to be left out in the cold," she said. "This is all going to change."

And she added that "the only way the City Council can communicate with Cuba is to their government."

"They don't have a city council," she said. "They don't have a mayor of Havana that means anything."

A bit later, she hinted that she might not pursue the letter, saying it was to mark a historic occasion, which has now passed.

Noting that the Florida Orchestra plans a series of cultural exchanges with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said that "relationships are there, and we should participate in that relationship."

Regardless of whether the council sends a letter, council member Harry Cohen said it needs to speak with one voice on the idea of opening up economic and other opportunities.

"While the embargo is still the law, the days of the embargo are clearly coming to a close," he said. "There is definitely change in the air."

So, he said, Tampa must be ready to move because other cities will be.

"Let's do something to speak as a council that says we support engaging with our neighbor to the south that is only 90 miles away."

With eye on trade embargo, Tampa City Council ponders way to reach out to Cuba 09/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 2:36pm]
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