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What does Trump mean for Tampa Bay's relationship with Cuba?

Like many who woke on Nov. 9 to the reality of Donald Trump as president-elect, Margo McKnight asked herself, "What now?"

But her curiosity was rooted in Cuba and the marine ecosystem, not partisan politics.

As vice president of biological resources at the Florida Aquarium, McKnight is point person for the Tampa facility's joint research with the National Aquarium of Cuba focused on coral reef restoration.

President Barack Obama's initiatives to normalize relations with the island nation have made this work easier. But Trump has promised to reverse Obama's Cuba policies, putting the aquarium partnership in jeopardy.

"We're operating on the premise that science and conservation trumps any obstacle," McKnight said. "We're not changing tactics. We are going to continue on with our work while we wait and see what happens."

Others in the Tampa Bay area share this attitude.

There are ongoing cultural and student exchanges between Tampa and Cuba. Beginning Dec. 12, commercial flights will link Tampa and Havana. In February, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club will host a race to Cuba. Medical collaborations are being discussed.

These initiatives will continue unless they become unlawful.

Though Trump ended the campaign with a hardliner stance on Cuba, he began it in favor of normalized relations, only saying he would have negotiated a better deal than Obama. So, it is difficult to know what he actually thinks.

"There are a lot of American businesses that are starting to benefit from the opening that has occurred to date and the president-elect is a businessman," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. "We are hopeful that the president-elect will allow the relationship-building to continue."

Obama's Cuba policies can be undone by Trump alone, since they are based solely on presidential executive orders, said Doug Jacobson, a sanctions lawyer in Washington, D.C. "They can just be modified or revoked."

For example, it was an executive order that allows Americans to visit Cuba with a general license if the trip falls under one of 12 categories such as medical and scientific research or, the one most U.S. citizens use, to learn more about the island's people, culture and history.

Trump can require Americans to apply for a specific license from the Treasury Department, as was necessary before this new detente. An arduous process that does not always end with a yes, it could scare many away from considering a trip to Cuba.

With a smaller passenger base, the airlines may then decide to end Cuba service. Or Trump could cancel these flights since they are allowed under a non-binding arrangement between the nations, not a binding one.

Or, the State Department under Trump could place Cuba back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list or rescind diplomatic relations. Business, travel and educational opportunities with the island would then be more difficult to pursue.

"Will he do any of this?" Jacobson said. "Only time will tell."

Bill Carlson, president of TuckerHall, a Tampa public relations agency that supports business and humanitarian missions in Cuba, remains optimistic.

Polls show that public opinion is in favor of engaging Cuba, he pointed out. And Trump stressed he would roll back "unconstitutional executive orders."

"The Cuba-related executive orders were not unconstitutional," Carlson said. "We need the exchanges to continue. They build goodwill, which brings Cuba closer to being an ally instead of an enemy 90 miles from our coast."

Sen. Marco Rubio, boosted by Trump's victory and the Republican hold on the Senate and House, says reversing Obama's Cuba policies is a priority and he will hold the next president to his campaign promise.

But John Kavulich, president of New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, doesn't see an immediate threat.

"It seems unlikely that Cuba will be a 100-day agenda item simply because there are so many other items that will be deemed far more important," he said.

If Trump follows through with his Cuba campaign promise mid-year, it will then take more time for all ties between the nations to be unraveled.

With Raúl Castro close to relinquishing the presidency, having promised to do so on Feb. 24, 2018, to chosen successor Miguel Díaz-Canel, Trump may decide to keep the status quo to ease negotiations with the new Cuban leader.

"Trump has an opportunity to become the first U.S. president in 59 years to engage a post-Castro Cuba," Kavulich said. "He will find it difficult to resist."

On Thursday, 30 Cuban dissidents visiting the United States for a conference about democracy at the University of Miami stopped by Ybor City's José Martí Park named in honor of the freedom fighter who inspired Cuba's successful War of Independence against Spain in the 1890s.

Among the locals present was Tampa's Rafael Pizano, whose father, Roberto Pizano, spent 18 years in a Cuban prison for his efforts to oust Fidel Castro. Rafael Pizano said there may still be hope for Obama's efforts.

The criticism by hardliners who support dissidents is that Cuba hasn't reciprocated with enough change to warrant a U.S. embrace. Perhaps if Obama can persuade the Cuban government to release prominent and long-serving political prisoners, hardliners may consider softening their stance and welcome some engagement.

"Obama made an effort to see if he can bring change to Cuba, and I have to respect that," Pizano said a few days prior to the event. "But Cuba's efforts have to become equitable."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3320. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

What does Trump mean for Tampa Bay's relationship with Cuba? 11/21/16 [Last modified: Monday, November 21, 2016 12:19pm]
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