Once again the people of Tampa were central to a historic, positive change for the Western Hemisphere.
Tampa's ties with Cuba are centuries old. José Martí called upon the people of Tampa in the late 1800s to support Cuba's independence from Spain, and Tampa changed history. Near Martí's statue in Ybor City is a marker, "La Casa de Pedroso," which commemorates where he stayed — at Paulina Pedroso's home. It is said that she would shine every light in the house on José Martí to keep him safe.
President Barack Obama's historic announcement last week once again was spurred on by Tampa's advocacy for change and normalization. Our community has continued to shine a light on the ideals of José Martí and keep them safe for the benefit of our country and Cuba.
Our Cuban-American neighbors called for family reunification and the ability to support their relatives in Cuba. Many have lived in Tampa for generations and been frustrated by governments that have kept them apart and from sending financial support. Together we pressed then President-elect Obama to make significant changes early in his first term.
Tampa's cultural and business leaders also led the charge for change as they capitalized on the Obama administration's reforms of 2011, including flights from Tampa International Airport and cultural exchanges. The Florida Orchestra's multi-year exchange, University of Tampa's baseball game with the Cuban National team, the Florida Aquarium discussions, and Ybor business leaders' Sol Y Son concert series demonstrated the desire to turn the page on outdated Cold War policies. St. Lawrence Catholic Church's mission to build the first Catholic church since 1959 also gained national attention.
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and local officials traveled to Cuba to position Tampa as a gateway and build ties, boost jobs and assess future economic opportunities. Upon their return, they took the cause directly to Vice President Joe Biden and urged change. I helped build a new coalition to demand more travel opportunities for all Americans to Cuba.
Meanwhile, heads turned when a U.S. congresswoman from Florida traveled to Cuba with the Center for Democracy in the Americas and returned to advocate for lifting of the 50-year-old embargo. During this trip, I saw firsthand the economic reforms underway in Cuba. I met with entrepreneurs and discussed opportunities and challenges. The fact that I represented Tampa gave them hope. Subsequently, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry heard from me even more often: It is time to change. Without America's engagement with Cuba, further reform would be difficult.
It also is important that Cuba hear from Tampa on our expectations for human rights reform. Earlier this year, I invited Cuban Ambassador José Cabañas to Tampa to discuss greater engagement and reform. Tampa leaders offered to help Cuba through its transition and urged Cuba to change as well.
A few days ago, Obama answered our community's call for change with his historic announcement to re-establish diplomatic relations, expand travel opportunities and support for Cuban people. Engagement by our great nation will encourage Cuba to go further and faster, and the Tampa community will again lead the way and continue to shine the light of freedom and peace among peoples.
There is an accumulation of essential truths that would fit on to a hummingbird's wing and yet they hold the key to civic peace, spiritual elevation and national greatness. … People must live in the natural and inescapable enjoyment of freedom, just as they enjoy light and air … (and) being educated is the only way to be free. — José Martí
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is a Tampa Democrat who represents portions of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.