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Dates and itinerary for Tampa City Council trip to Cuba finalized

TAMPA — The dates are set and the itinerary is largely finalized for the Tampa City Council's first official trip to Cuba since the Cuban Revolution almost 60 years ago.

While only two of the six council members who voted in favor of sending a delegation will participate, council member Yvonne Capin said that doesn't lessen the importance.

"No matter how many go," Capin said, "this will still be the first time a delegation goes to Cuba that represents City Council in an official capacity."

For local Cuba hard-liners, even one council member meeting with the Cuban government is too many, because they say it legitimizes an oppressive regime.

So between now and Oct. 14, when the delegation leaves for five days and four nights on the island, they will press for the excursion to be canceled.

"They didn't ask for any input from the public when they voted," said Rafael Pizano, spokesman for the Tampa hard-liner organization Casa de Cuba. "We deserve to have our voices heard."

Capin, chairwoman of the City Council, and vice chairman Harry Cohen are committed to making the trip, which does not involve city money. The itinerary, which could change, includes a tour of Mariel — Cuba's largest cargo port — discussions on environmental protection and a meeting with biomedical industry leaders.

Capin envisions collaborations between Cuban and Tampa research centers.

A spokesman for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center said the institute is considering signing a memorandum of understanding with Cuba, but provided no details.

Still, said Casa de Cuba's Pizano, "Cuba has to get their act together before any practical partnerships can take place."

Since June, when the City Council voted in favor of sending a delegation, the Cuban government has proved it is not serious about change, Pizano said.

The government recently placed a freeze on licenses for private businesses, for instance, claiming they need time to perfect the system that has allowed the number of self-employed citizens to rise to nearly 600,000 since 2010.

Critics say it's a way for the Cuban government to gain control again.

And there is the ongoing investigation into whether American diplomats in early August were subject to a covert attack from some sort of sonic weapon, Pizano said.

He also cited Cuba's support of Venezuela, and how 7,000 Tampa-area Venezuelans voted in an international straw poll on July 16 condemning the direction of the South American country, which many feel is becoming a dictatorship.

"With what has gone on, council should revisit the decision," Pizano said.

City Council members reached by the Times will not change their minds.

"I know what Cuba is and isn't," said council member Luis Viera, who has met with local Cubans and Venezuelans opposed to the delegation.

"It is a dictatorship that doesn't provide freedoms we take for granted,'' he said. "But I am of the opinion that there should be dialogue."

Viera will not be part of the delegation because he prefers to make his first visit to Cuba with his mother, who fled the island in 1960.

As for the other City Council members:

• Guido Maniscalco said his schedule is too hectic.

• Mike Suarez has no interest in visiting Cuba but said he voted in favor of the delegation because anyone on the City Council who thinks going can serve the residents of Tampa should be allowed to.

• Charlie Miranda did not respond to a request for comment but previously said he only goes to Cuba on his own.

• Frank Reddick, who was not at the council meeting for the June vote approving the trip, did not respond to a request for comment.

The delegation also will include local leaders from other industries, such as philanthropist David A. Straz Jr., a potential mayoral candidate.

"I have a great relationship with the Cuba government," Straz said. "I will help any way I can."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

Dates and itinerary for Tampa City Council trip to Cuba finalized 08/22/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 8:25pm]
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