A ghost from the past is haunting plans to reclaim Tampa's historical place vis-a-vis Cuba.
I'm not talking about anti-Castro voters. If there ever was a broad-based movement favoring U.S. sanctions on Cuba, it doesn't exist anymore in Tampa. When searching for the last time that Revenge-on-Castro activism was buttressed by a modicum of grass roots movement in the city, you have to go back to the late 1990s. Now, more than a decade later, with Cuba on a path of irreversible change and 65 percent of Cuban-Americans in favor of unrestricted travel for everyone, the pro-sanctions cause in Tampa is reduced to a handful of activists writing occasional letters to officials.
Just ask the Tampa council member who has been one of the leading advocates for rekindling ties with Cuba: After taking the first direct flight to Havana and publishing an op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times advocating more ties, Mary Mulhern says she got some 80 positive email messages and one negative message.
Seeking more trade and business with Cuba apparently involves neither risk nor pain for local elected officials. To the contrary, impatience is growing. With $350 million in U.S. exports to Cuba expected this year, jobs are being created in places other than the Tampa Bay area. The Port of Houston shared a booth with the state of Texas at the just-ended International Havana Fair; the Port of Mobile and Alabama were there; the state of Virginia and the port of Norfolk were there; Maryland and the port of Baltimore had a presence.
Most recently, local business leaders tried to take advantage of new openings in U.S.-Cuba diplomacy to put Tampa on the island's trade map, develop the local economy and cement the region's claim to become a major gateway to Cuba again. So the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, assisted by the Alliance for a Responsible Cuba Policy, responded to an offer from Interests Section Chief Jorge Bolaños and planned for Cuban diplomats to come and meet with airport and port officials, as well as regional business organizations.
This effort faced the opposition of a grand total of maybe one, possibly even three local activists; the Cubans would have loved to have come. Even so, they never made it to Tampa.
Pretty much all of the powers-that-be in Tampa were pleading with the federal government and members of Congress to let the diplomats come to Florida, but they fell on deaf ears with the U.S. State Department. Very much in contrast, and in a novel move, the State Department allowed the Cuban chief diplomat in Washington to travel to Ohio and speak at local universities, just one week later.
The State Department grants permits on a case-by-case basis and reciprocity by the Cubans, spokesman William Ostick said. And why did it deny one in the case of Tampa? He wouldn't say.
The anti-Castro cause has created a taxpayer-funded regime-change industry complete with its conjoined twin, a political machine that functions like clockwork when it comes to defending sanctions and making campaign contributions that, in turn, safeguard taxpayer funds for the anti-Castro cause.
We observed in real time how the clockwork ticks when we spilled the beans with a news item on Cubastandard.com about the Cuban diplomat's Ohio trip and a thaw regarding diplomatic freedom of movement. Within a matter of hours, a freelance contributor to taxpayer-funded Radio Martí picked up the news on his blog. He then asked Miami's U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — one of the heads of the pro-embargo caucus in Congress — for a comment, to which her office promptly issued a statement complaining about what she calls the Obama administration's "absurd appeasement policies" that allow "enemy propaganda" to be spread "unchallenged" at Ohio universities.
The Ohio trip of the Cuban Interests Section chief became the one that got away. But Tampa wasn't as lucky.
Our point? Gee — wouldn't it be nice to have a never-tiring champion like Ros-Lehtinen to defend Tampa's interests? It's great to have a fighter like Al Fox and his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy in town. It's great to have the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, a World Trade Center, a port and airport that are pulling in the same direction. It's great to have U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor speaking out for Tampa's economic interests with regard to Cuba.
But it's not enough. As long as Tampa doesn't counter the anti-Castro machine with a clear discourse and targeted use of influence in favor of the region's economic interests vis-a-vis Cuba, it will be difficult to score even small victories such as a visit by Cuban diplomats.