We all know how Cuba excites passions in political debates from Miami to Tampa.
Thursday night, Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican, and Naples cattleman John Parke Wright IV locked horns over United States policy toward Cuba in a debate held in the wood-paneled enclave of downtown Tampa's University Club.
Rivera, a rising Cuban American political star, voiced the unbending attitudes of Miami's hard-line exile community - no normalization of relations until democratic elections are held and the political prisoners are freed. Wright, who travels to the island frequently selling bull semen to his counterparts in Cuba's anemic agricultural sector, called for an immediate end to the 47-year-old embargo. It's not working, he said, and it's hurting Florida.
The rhetoric of the debate, organized by Tampa Bay Council of World Affairs & Commerce, wasn't that surprising. What was surprising was the apparent unanimity of support for Wright's side. In the middle of a deep recession, a roomful of business people, a number of them with Cuban ties, expressed little patience for a state legislator whose one-note foreign policy seems to be holding Florida's faltering economy hostage.
"Prior to 1960, over 50 percent of the Port of Tampa's trade was with Cuba," Wright said. "Cuba has been cut off by our heavy hand, for almost 50 years."
Florida's phosphate fertilizer and livestock industries arepoised to capitalize on Cuba's need to regenerate its food production, he pointed out. He also invited Rivera to help revive the Hav-a-Tampa cigar factory in Tampa, which closed recently with a loss of 495 jobs. Why not let Tampa import Cuban tobacco, he said.
Don't be fooled, Rivera says. Doing business with Cuba won't help ordinary Cubans. "There's only one business in Cuba, It's called Castro Inc."
Rivera has a point. Almost everyone in Cuba works for the state, and salaries don't cover basic needs, despite free health care and education. Private enterprise is only permitted in a tiny sector of the economy - roadside car tire repairs, private taxis and a handful of small, family-run restaurants and bed and breakfast lodgings - but it is strictly licensed and subject to all kind of restrictions, as well as heavy taxes.
During the debate, moderated by Jack Harris, the morning talk show host with WFLA-AM Radio, Rivera and Wright fielded questions from a panel of journalists, including this reporter, as well as the audience, which directed all its questions at Rivera.
Why keep the embargo when most Cuban-Americans don't support it any more, asked Alexis Muellner, editor of the Tampa Bay Business Journal. He cited a recent opinion poll that found 41 percent of Cuban Americans do not support the embargo, against only 40 percent who are in favor of keeping it.
Rivera dismissed the poll as lacking "empirical" veracity, even though it was conducted by a leading pollster and merely confirmed several other recent polls.
When it comes to Cuba, why can't we put jobs first and communism second, as we happily seem to be able to do in China and Vietnam, a member of the audience asked.
Rivera sought to back up his arguments by noting that Cuba is on a official blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation made by the Department of State. While that remains true, most experts, including officials at the Pentagon, have long argued that Cuba's removal from that list was way overdue.
"Cuba is not a terrorist nation," Wright argued. "It's a great tourist destination."
Rivera held up the cause of Cuba's 206 political prisoners as a reason for not relaxing U.S. policy. But his argument that the embargo is the proper punishment for human rights violations fell flat. Many of the political dissidents in Cuba do not support the embargo.
Toward the end, Rivera began to lose his composure under the barrage of pointed questions. But, he remained gracious. Wright was "misguided" but "well-intentioned," he conceded.
But as Florida's economic crisis deepens, these days it's an open question as to who is more misguided on Cuba.
Contact David Adams at email@example.com.