TAMPA — Saying "It's time to try something new," U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor on Monday called for the Obama administration and Congress to lift travel restrictions and the 51-year-old trade embargo on Cuba.
"Cuba is changing," said Castor, D-Tampa, who left on a fact-finding trip there Wednesday evening and returned Saturday. "They have embarked on economic reforms that the United States of America should promote. The United States of America now should normalize relations and begin a constructive dialogue with the island nation."
Castor has worked for years to help arrange direct flights from Tampa International Airport to Havana, but her support for ending the embargo and travel restrictions goes further than before.
Castor said Fidel Castro is no longer in power, described his brother, President Raul Castro, as "a much more practical ruler," and said there is a generational change in Cuba's government.
"They are still a hard-core communist nation, but they are embarking on market reforms in their economy that deserve encouragement," said Castor, who traveled with members of her staff and representatives of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Democracy in the Americas.
Castor said she plans to ask President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry "to open talks to lead to greater trade and travel opportunities."
"This should not be done with blinders on, however," she said. "There are still very significant human rights challenges in Cuba. It is still, to many extents, a repressive regime that does not allow citizens to enjoy all of the human rights that we all enjoy.
"But after 50 years of an embargo and isolation that's proved that it hasn't worked, it's time to try something new and refresh our relationship," she said.
Easing the restrictions would offer the United States a variety of benefits, Castor said: a new market for manufacturers who cannot sell to Cuba now, more influence over a Cuban offshore oil drilling industry whose antiquated technology could threaten Florida beaches, and an opportunity for Tampa to become a tourism gateway to the island.
Castor was in Cuba the same time as celebrities Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and she said at one point she watched a "massive crowd" outside their hotel chant "Beyoncé! Beyoncé!"
"American popular culture is ubiquitous," Castor said. "On the serious side, it highlights the fact that Americans are prevented from traveling there, and that's the only country in the world that the American government restricts (that) ability."
U.S. citizens need the federal government's permission to travel to Cuba. Cuban-Americans can get a special license to visit family. Tourism is not permitted, but non-Cubans can get a license to travel there for cultural, humanitarian or religious reasons.
South Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, whose districts include large numbers of Cuban-American residents, have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. It asked for "the type of license that Beyoncé and Jay-Z received, for what purpose, and who approved such travel."
"Despite the clear prohibition against tourism in Cuba, numerous press reports described the couple's trip as tourism, and the Castro regime touted it as such in its propaganda," they wrote.
Citing news reports saying that the trip was fully licensed by the Treasury Department, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said that, "if true, the Obama administration should explain exactly how trips like these comply with U.S. law and regulations governing travel to Cuba and it should disclose how many more of these trips they have licensed."
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona saw no problem, tweeting, "Fine by me. Every American should have the right to travel there."
Tampa lawyer and longtime anti-Castro activist Ralph Fernandez likewise said allowing Beyoncé and Jay-Z to travel to Cuba was wrong, and he plans to put together a complaint to be turned over to the Justice Department for their prosecution.
Fernandez also criticized Castor's suggestion to end the embargo, saying many companies, except for computer and some high-tech companies, can sell to Cuba now — for cash. What the embargo prevents, he said, is extending the regime credit, and he said it should since he doesn't believe the nation would repay its debts. He also predicted opening Cuba to tourism would hurt Florida's economy.
"If the travel ban is lifted, there ain't going to be a tourist in our neck of the woods for five years, because every tourist is going to go south," he said.
While Fernandez said Castor's trip was valid and lawful, he contended her proposals do nothing but give credibility and propaganda points to a dictatorship.
"She joins Beyoncé, Flake and all the terrorists of the Western hemisphere in their expression of solidarity with the repression and tyranny of the Cuban regime," Fernandez said.
Castor said such critics "need to recognize the fact that there are new, privately owned small businesses — restaurants everywhere, hotels and motels. Reform is happening, and much of the money is not going to support the actual government. It is going to those individuals, just like the remittances.
"Every American should be able to travel" to Cuba, she said, "including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and including the people in the Tampa Bay area — and they should fly out of Tampa."