Sunday, June 24, 2018
Politics

On Cuba, Buckhorn's out of step with many around Tampa Bay, and he's okay with that

TAMPA — On most issues concerning the local economy, there is little daylight between the Tampa Bay area's business and political elites and Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

But the future of the region's relationship with Cuba is not one of those issues.

So after Cuban officials scouting possible consulate locations toured St. Petersburg but not Tampa last weekend, Tampa City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said, "It's very sad that our mayor has been AWOL on this subject."

"Cuba is part of this city's history," Capin said. "He doesn't seem to understand that."

Buckhorn was on vacation this week, but his views on Tampa's opportunities — and responsibilities — amid an opening to Cuba are well-documented.

In essence, Buckhorn is not embracing more economic engagement with Cuba until the Castro government institutes democratic reforms and guarantees that its citizens have broader rights to speak their minds. He doesn't oppose other people doing it, but he's not taking part himself.

This puts Buckhorn, a possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, out of step with many executives and elected officials who are organizing themselves to chase business opportunities in Cuba.

It is, however, consistent with Bob Buckhorn being Bob Buckhorn.

One of the mayor's core political principles is that he does not turn his back on his friends. And over three decades in Tampa politics, Buckhorn has worked to build friendships with Cuban families in West Tampa who suffered under Fidel Castro.

In 1995, he flew with the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue as it searched for rafters trying to escape to Florida — and that was before Havana shot down two of the group's planes in 1996, killing four men.

In 2002, he criticized then-Mayor Dick Greco for going on an unannounced trip to Havana and meeting with Castro.

Nine years later, when Buckhorn ran for mayor, activists reached out to Cuban-American voters, reminded them of Greco's trip and organized rides to get them to the polls. Buckhorn edged Greco by less than 1 percent to make the runoff.

Still, longtime activist Dario Diaz said recently that Buckhorn's focus on the past no longer helps his city.

"You're not going to undo what's already been done," said Diaz, a West Tampa attorney who was critical of Greco's visit to Cuba but now feels that isolating Cuba has failed.

"There's going to be more trade. There's going to be more freedom to travel. If we don't participate in that, we will be harmed by the people that are willing to participate."

But in a July 13 interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Buckhorn said his position is not changing. Here's an edited transcript:

There's a strong sentiment that your disinclination to engage and lukewarmness could cost Tampa a consulate.

To say that I'm not engaged isn't an accurate statement. I'm not for it and I'm not against it.

I think that many of those who are advocating for it have no appreciation for the experience of our Cuban citizens — zero — and look at it purely from economic terms as opposed to personal terms and the history of the Cuban people here in Tampa. And I'm just not going to be disrespectful of that.

You dealt with Florida Gov. Rick Scott on the University of South Florida medical school for the Jeff Vinik-Cascade project in downtown Tampa. Isn't a consulate going to benefit the city of Tampa?

To a far lesser degree than the medical school. I don't think there's any comparison, in terms of the economic impact, that that medical school will bring to downtown Tampa versus a consulate, which is basically just an office.

Until I see any measurable improvement with the lives of the Cuban people and any effort to open up Cuba to democratic reform and free speech and freedom of the press and freedom of assembly and freedom of religion, I've just got other things to do.

If the State Department makes the decision to locate the consulate in Tampa, then we'll protect the consulate and we'll protect the diplomats and it will just be another office.

But things are changing, and people are saying we have to think about the future as well as the past.

I would agree that things are changing. And they are moving in the right direction. And I think over the next decade you will see significant changes in the relationship between Cuba and the United States. But I also think it's got to be a two-way street, and so far it has not been.

And you don't think that there's a risk that in the long run that Tampa could be put at a competitive disadvantage?

By not having the consulate?

By not embracing more comprehensively the coming change.

I don't think having a consulate here makes one bit of difference in terms of our preparation for what eventually will happen. . . . Certainly it's nice. But it mainly processes visas and travel requests. It's not an economic engine unto itself. . . . It's more symbolic than substantive.

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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