TAMPA — "Cuba ready" for trade and travel opportunities with the island is how Port Tampa Bay promotes its stance on engaging the former Cold War enemy.
To prepare, besides calls and emails, the port has hosted Cuba's ambassador to the United States, a top official from its largest cargo port, and a delegation of Cuban maritime officials, even introducing tenants to the visitors.
"We are doing all we can," Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson said.
Yet, until now, this has been done with no promotion, and, because of that, the port has not been a darling among locals in favor of relations with Cuba.
With no knowledge of the port's work, many in the pro-Cuba trade camp have seen the port's "Cuba ready" motto as bluster — saying what the pro-engagement people want to hear while placating the hardliners by doing nothing.
Acknowledging he's heard those comments, Anderson said, "Proof is in the pudding" and pointed to a Carnival Cruise Line ship docked behind him.
Carnival launches a Tampa to Cuba voyage on June 29, making it the second cruise line to offer such a journey. Royal Caribbean started its Cuba itinerary on April 30.
Port Tampa Bay didn't land these by sitting idly by, Anderson said Thursday as he detailed publicly for the first time his staff's Cuba efforts.
Since cruises to Cuba became legal under U.S. law, they have reached out to the Cuban government and cruise lines on numerous occasions.
Besides pitching the norms such as this area's centuries-old link to Cuba and a large Cuban American population, Port Tampa Bay has pointed out that it specializes in mid-sized ships.
"That fits with what Cuba wants," Anderson said. "The infrastructure in Cuba isn't going to be able to support the super cruise lines."
Spokespersons for Carnival and Royal Caribbean agreed that Port Tampa Bay has been aggressive in their pursuit of these cruises and that the Cuban government was excited for such routes to begin because of it.
So why the public silence from his government agency? It's not up to him to discuss what business opportunities tenants may have, Anderson said. "We have to respect our private customers."
The Cuban ambassador is scheduled to be in the area next week, but there are no planned meetings yet. When he was here in recent years, he has met with Anderson.
The last time a major Cuban delegation came to Tampa was in February.
This group was here on the invitation of the port and planned on signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to find ways to work together, Anderson said.
Yet, the port's communications vice president, Ed Miyagishima, denied to the Tampa Bay Times that an MOU was ever in the works and said the Cuban maritime officials were here on their own volition to attend a public conference, not on an invite, and that no private meetings were planned. That all added to the belief that Port Tampa Bay was not actively pursuing Cuban initiatives.
This was not to avoid publicly addressing the controversy that often comes with meeting with Cuban officials, Anderson said.
"Just a miscommunication," Anderson said. "Our PR person wasn't aware of discussions we were having."
Miyagishima has since left the port for the position of CEO of the 2019 Tampa Bay Medal of Honor Convention Host Committee.
The port decided against the MOU just days before the delegation arrived.
"It had taken four to six months to roll out something and they made changes at the last minute," port COO Raul Alfonso. "We cannot accept that."
Then Gov. Rick Scott threatened to cut funding for Florida ports directly working with Cuba. Not included in that threat are port tenants who may have links to Cuba, such as the cruise ship industry.
It is for that reason, said Anderson, he will not visit Cuba for port business.
"We are partners with the state and respectful that the governor wouldn't want us to go," Anderson said. "We continue to do everything else we can."
That includes staying in contact with Charles Baker, who runs the container shipment operation at the Port of Mariel, Cuba's largest such facility. Baker has twice been to Tampa to meet with the port.
So, while no shipping lines have yet requested routes from Port Tampa Bay to Cuba to deliver goods allowed under U.S. law, if they do, Anderson said, a relationship with a counterpart there already has been established.
Port of Mariel is promoted as the future trans-shipment hub of the Caribbean and has identified Port Tampa Bay as key due its proximity to the Orlando, an inbound cargo distribution hub.
The embargo prevents that from happening. Still, don't expect Port Tampa Bay to advocate for lifting of the embargo.
"We have limited political capital," he said. "We prioritize our issues and I don't think lobbying Congress on that issue will be productive."
As for his personal stance on relations with Cuba? Anderson remains coy.
"I don't have an opinion," he said. "We will do whatever the law dictates."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.