TAMPA — It's hard to find a region in the United States that has been as active, or enthusiastic, about reigniting a relationship with Cuba as ours. Look behind the international agreements and cultural exchanges, and you'll find one man who has been quietly using his money and connections to make it all happen.
David A. Straz Jr., the billionaire benefactor of Tampa's performing arts center, is so well-respected on the island nation that when his private jet is en route to Havana's airport, large passenger planes need to circle for their turn.
Straz cuts to the front of the line and has helped the Tampa Bay area do the same.
Charter flights to Havana. A performance by the Cuban National Ballet. A consulate, a yacht race, a scientific partnership.
It may seem odd that a man whose name is spelled out in lights would be too modest to promote his efforts to build these relationships.
But it took a year, and multiple requests, to get the 74-year-old retired banker to speak in depth with the Tampa Bay Times about how and why he became a uniting force between the one-time Cold War enemies, and how he thinks the new American president could impact this relationship.
Straz spoke candidly about human rights, Florida's political buy-in and the need, now more than ever, for diplomacy.
"I'm not Cuban," Straz said. "I don't have family from Cuba. I didn't grow up in Cuba. I don't want to invest in Cuba. But Cuba is so close to us and is a wonderful country. We ought to have a good relationship."
The journey from visitor to VIP
Straz first visited Cuba in 2001, he said. He believed it would be his only trip there, a fact-finding mission to discover what the tiny blacklisted island was like.
Then, the following year, he was asked to return to Cuba as part of then-Mayor Dick Greco's 2002 delegation that met with Fidel Castro. Straz said no.
"I didn't want to suffer the political ramifications that Dick did," Straz said with a chuckle about Greco, who was lambasted by Tampa's hard-line Cuban-American community.
But Greco pressed Straz to meet the man who put the Castro encounter together, activist Albert A. Fox. Straz did, and agreed to join the board of Fox's Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, forging a partnership with the organization that would lead to most of his Cuba work.
"David has always been interested in anything that betters the world," Greco said. "I knew he was the type of person that needed to be involved in this type of thing."
The Wisconsin native made his fortune starting and selling chains of banks, first in his home state and later Florida. Though he has never had any desire to run for public office, Straz uses his riches to support candidates. Among those he has backed: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
In 2003, after the end of a civil war in Liberia, President George W. Bush turned to Straz when he wanted an honorary consul in the Tampa Bay area for the West African nation. "I guess no one else wanted to do it," joked Straz.
After visiting the impoverished nation, Straz decided to get involved with its postwar reconstruction by donating to schools there. Liberia's leaders then named him an ambassador at-large, a diplomat who represents that country internationally. Because of this title, whenever Straz visits any country, as a courtesy, he first reaches out to its foreign minister.
In follow-up trips to Cuba, his ambassador status helped Straz meet and befriend a number of the government's heavy hitters. Now, he gets special treatment.
During a recent visit, the Cuban government set up tours of its museums for Straz and his wife.
Last year, when Cuba raised its flag at its Washington, D.C., embassy, Straz was one of 500 international dignitaries invited.
When Straz speaks, Cuba listens.
Influence at home and abroad
Three years before the United States and Cuba agreed to repair relations, Tampa sought to create its first strong link with the island nation by offering charter flights to Havana.
And when Tampa International Airport needed to secure landing rights from the Cuban government, Straz set up a meeting between airport CEO Joe Lopano and Jorge Alberto Bolanos Suarez, then Cuba's chief diplomat in Washington.
After the CEO's pitch, those in the room watched the diplomat turn to Straz.
"If you think it is all right," Bolanos told him, "we'll do it."
That's how these meetings go.
When a visit to Havana landed St. Petersburg on a short list of cities to host a Cuban consulate, Straz was there. Mayor Rick Kriseman could tell Cuban leaders "clearly knew" him. "He brought a gravitas," Kriseman said. "When you build a relationship with someone you don't know, to have someone they are comfortable with and trust gives you an instant degree of credibility you wouldn't already have."
When the performing arts center wanted to add to its Cuban programming, the head of the Cuban National Ballet shook Straz's hand in Havana and said he would do all he could to make Tampa the first stop on a possible U.S. tour. "We were always dealing with intermediaries," said Judith Lisi, president of the Straz Center. "He deals with the people who make the decisions."
Yes, Straz's financing has been key for the Alliance foundation, which has facilitated a multilateral oil spill conference, an aquarium partnership and an upcoming international yacht race, all in collaboration with Cuba. But money is only one component of the support Straz has offered the Tampa-based group through the years, Fox said. "He has stood by us."
One major way has been to help secure political buy-in from Florida leaders.
On Jan. 31, 2014, when the chief of the Cuban Interests Section visited Tampa, Straz and the Alliance foundation hosted a reception at the Tampa Yacht & Country Club and invited Charlie Crist, then a candidate for governor.
It was the first time Crist had met a Cuban leader or attended an event promoting engagement.
Days later, Crist went on HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher and announced he was against the embargo. A Florida politician taking this position made national headlines.
"I was already there heart and soul," Crist, now a congressman-elect, told the Times about his pro-engagement stance. "But having a man like David Straz who I have immense respect for certainly was critical. He encouraged me and in that regard, I am grateful."
Tampa City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin agrees Straz is significant to the cause of United States-Cuba relations because of his stature. "From the beginning, he has been in favor of engaging with Cuba," Capin said. "People feel more comfortable sharing that view and going to Cuba knowing someone like David Straz is on their side."
She cited Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik as an example.
Capin said when Vinik asked her whether it was dangerous for him to travel to Cuba, she pointed out that Straz boasts of it as one of the safest nations he has visited. This past March, Capin said, Vinik traveled to Cuba.
Through email, Ali Glisson, the spokeswoman for Vinik's Strategic Property Partners real estate company, confirmed he had been to Cuba but would not comment further.
When pressed about who he has convinced to go, Straz chose to focus on those he has failed to convince. Straz has repeatedly asked Bob Buckhorn to see Cuba for himself, but the Tampa mayor has said no each time, holding steady to his belief that the communist government must provide more freedoms to its people before he'll visit.
"He has his reasons," Straz said, "and I respect them."
'The right circumstances'
When it comes to U.S.-Cuba policy, debaters tend to take polar sides. But Straz thinks everyone should make case-by-case decisions based on facts.
As an example, he cites an incident from a recent trip. While taking a solo walk one afternoon through the narrow winding streets of Old Havana, Straz noticed two men following him. He circled the same few blocks twice more, and they were still behind him.
As he began the same route again, one of his pursuers approached him. Straz grew nervous. "Are you lost?" the stranger asked. "No," Straz told him. "I'm just enjoying the beautiful day."
The men left him alone after that. Straz is convinced they were sent by the government.
Those in favor of the embargo would say Cuba was spying on Straz.
Those in favor of engagement would say Cuba was protecting him because he is a man of importance there.
What does Straz think those men were doing?
"You'd have to ask them," said Straz, unwilling to make a conclusion without sufficient facts.
"You can't live with your head in the sand. Cuba has some good things. Cuba has some faults."
Cuba should be commended for ensuring that its people have housing, health care and an education, Straz said. Still, it does not offer its people adequate freedoms of the press, speech or assembly, he believes.
"I am not ignoring human rights. That is why I am happy to hear Donald Trump say that we need to examine this situation," Straz said. "I think he needs to do whatever he needs to do to achieve the result."
Just as he has supported President Barack Obama's vision for engagement, Straz is willing to back President-elect Trump's plan to roll back these new polices if the Cuban government doesn't give more freedoms to its people.
"Obama did not get enough out of that deal," he said. "I have always felt that way. I'm just telling it how it is.
"I think the Cuban government would do more under the right circumstances. I'm hopeful that the new administration in Washington will create the right circumstances."
Though he does not know Trump well, Straz has met him on a few occasions. And if the next president calls Straz for assistance on Cuba, he would consider saying yes.
But one area should be off-limits, Straz said: Do not sever diplomatic relations.
Congress has yet to confirm Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Obama's pick for the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in 50 years, nor does it seem in a rush to do so. Straz plans to call on members of Congress to make the nomination official.
"We cannot get anywhere," Straz said, "without diplomacy."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3320. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.