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Tampa leaders meet Saturday to consider the impact if the Cuban embargo is lifted

TAMPA — As they snack on Cuban sandwiches Saturday, business and political leaders will share thoughts on Cuba trade and travel.

The Ybor City seminar is sponsored by the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, a nonprofit anti-embargo group.

For 10 years, Al Fox, president of the foundation, has been pushing Florida lawmakers to be more open to diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba.

"It's the right thing to do, to have friendly a relationship with a country we have such a historic relationship with. Music, food, baseball," he said. "We're their first choice."

Local attorney and Cuban activist Ralph Fernandez said Fox has been organizing meetings about Cuban trade for years but all the talks are premature and have been largely ineffective.

"Most of this is the same 30 or 40 people'' trying to be prepared for the fall of Cuban trade barriers, he said. "But nothing has happened and nothing will happen because of this meeting."

With new leadership in both countries, those who back the end of the 50-year-old travel and trade restrictions see opportunities on the horizon.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is pushing for charter flights from Tampa International Airport to Cuba. And the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa City Council passed resolutions supporting that effort.

Visits to Cuba have been planned this year by Fox, as well as the World Trade Center Tampa Bay, a nonprofit group boosting international trade. Tampa chamber chairman Henry Gonzalez plans to go.

U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D- Massachusetts, will speak Saturday. He's the author of a bill to end travel restrictions. It has more than 150 House co-sponsors. A companion bill in the Senate has 29 co-sponsors. But no Florida lawmakers have signed on to either bill.

Tampa produce shipper Mike Mauricio, a participant in Saturday's seminar, says the city's port could do more now, because some trade is already legal.

"Tampa has missed the boat," Mauricio said.

Tampa City Council member Tom Scott, who is running for mayor, said he's going to the seminar to learn more about current and future trade options.

Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern will be at Saturday's event and will travel to Cuba next month with Fox.

A recent poll by Bendixen & Associates shows that 67 percent of Cuban-Americans support allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba, and 43 percent support ending the Cuban embargo.

But local Cuban activists contend the support for trade is not as broad as the poll suggests.

Osberto Fernandez, president of the Cuban Exile Council of Tampa Bay, said he'll be at Saturday's seminar to voice his concerns about the willingness to overlook the plight of average Cubans in order to turn a profit.

"We cannot talk about trade with Cuba because there is no freedom," he said. Until Fidel and Raul Castro are gone and Cuba is a democracy "we should not trade."

But Mulhern said the poll numbers show public opinion has changed, and elected officials don't need to worry about political fallout from supporting a new Cuban policy.

And politics aside, the bottom line is economics, she said.

"We need any kind of economic growth we can get," she said. "It's really just about going there and building a relationship and getting ready. And also expanding the legal exporting we're doing now."

Osberto Fernandez concurred, with a wry twist. "These people (organizing the meeting) care nothing about Cubans," he said. "If we trade rice and beans and chickens with Cuba, all that food goes to the tourist hotels and the people continue to starve."

Mark Huey, administrator of economic development for Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, said he has attended several events recently that focus on Cuba trade and travel, and Saturday's event is on his agenda. He said he's preparing for possible changes.

"Certainly at some point if these sanctions are lifted, it will be beneficial to our port and local businesses," Huey said.

Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report.

If You Go

What: Rapprochement with Cuba: Good for Tampa Bay, Good for Florida, Good for America

Where: The Italian Club, 1731 E. Seventh Ave.

When: Saturday at 9 a.m.

For reservations: Call (813) 481-6806.

Fast facts

If you go

What: Rapprochement with Cuba: Good for Tampa Bay, Good for Florida, Good for America.

Where: The Italian Club, 1731 E Seventh Ave.

When: 9 a.m. Saturday.

For reservations:

Call (813) 481-6806.

Tampa leaders meet Saturday to consider the impact if the Cuban embargo is lifted 06/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2009 11:43pm]
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