Tampa-Cuba ties forged under Obama frayed under Trump. Now, it’s Biden’s turn.

The Biden Effect: Will the president-elect keep the status quo? Or will the man who served as Obama’s vice president immediately re-establish policies of engagement?
A Cuban and an American flag hang in the atrium aboard the Carnival Paradise at Port Tampa Bay before the ship set sail for Havana in 2017. U.S. cruises to Cuba have since been banned. [Times (2017]
A Cuban and an American flag hang in the atrium aboard the Carnival Paradise at Port Tampa Bay before the ship set sail for Havana in 2017. U.S. cruises to Cuba have since been banned. [Times (2017]
Published Jan. 6, 2021|Updated Jan. 12, 2021

TAMPA — Before Fidel Castro, before Communism, Tampa residents jokingly said their city was Cuba’s northern-most province due to the ties they shared.

Cuban immigrants helped found Ybor City. Cuban tobacco was rolled in Tampa cigar factories. Tampa residents traveled to the island for weekend excursions.

The link was rekindled under President Barack Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. Cruises and commercial flights connected Tampa and Havana. Scientific collaborations and art exchanges began.

But President Donald Trump rolled back most of Obama’s Cuba policies, tightening restrictions and sanctions while considering placing the nation on its state-sponsored terrorism list.

Some cheered Trump’s approach.

Others criticized it.

Now, both sides of the Cuba debate wonder what Joe Biden will do.

Will the president-elect maintain the status quo? Or will the man who served as Obama’s vice president immediately re-establish policies of engagement?

Those who study the issue believe Biden will fall somewhere in between. Whatever he does will impact the Tampa Bay area, which has the nation’s third-largest Cuban American population.

“I don’t expect anything major to happen in the first 100 days, because Biden hasn’t mentioned it,” said Albert A. Fox Jr. who, as president of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, helps forge relationships with Cuba. “I think it will be in dribs and drabs during his term.”

John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council that studies the business relationship between the nations, said he sees a key difference between Obama and Biden.

Obama’s Cuba initiative was a “legacy” policy, he said.

“What’s the political value for Biden to be the second president landing at José Martí International Airport in Havana?” Kavulich asked. “And there is no political constituency that matters to president-elect Biden that is screaming for anything to be done. I think he will make changes, but it will be over time and be conditional.”

Kavulich believes Biden will demand more from Cuba than Obama did. He pointed out that John Kerry, who helped orchestrate Obama’s Cuba policy as secretary of state and is now part of the Biden administration as special presidential envoy for climate, has said normalization of relations did not bring about the results for which he’d hoped.

“It’s fair to say that everybody shares a little bit of disappointment about the direction that the government in Cuba chose to go” after the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties, Kerry told the Miami Herald in September. “Cuba seemed to harden down after the initial steps were taken.”

Kavulich noted that Biden on the campaign trail hammered Cuba for human rights violations.

“There’s more political prisoners. The secret police are as brutal as ever,” Biden said during an October campaign stop in Miami.

And, as Trump did for four years, Biden tied human rights issues in Venezuela to their relationship with Cuba, Kavulich said.

“That likely means the Biden administration will make decisions on Cuba based upon what is happening in Venezuela,” Kavulich said. “Democracy and human rights in other countries was part of the Biden’s campaign ethos and will be tied to any Cuba policies.”

Related: Young leader rises in Tampa's Cuban dissident movement, but who will follow him?

Tampa’s Rafael Pizano, who lobbies internationally for better human rights in Cuba, hopes that Biden demands “political diversity” rather than the one-party Communist system, “freedom of views independent of the state” and the “release of political prisoners” as “a show of good will.”

For that to happen, Biden must fully staff the U.S. embassy in Havana, said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat in favor of better relations with Cuba.

In 2017, Trump slashed that staff following what remain mysterious brain injuries to diplomats. The State Department describes those as “sonic attacks” with microwave energy.

The cutbacks, Castor said, included “human rights officers on the streets.”

“Cubans are clamoring for freedom of expression,” she said, “and we don’t have the support they need on the island to promote their cause.”

Re-staffing the embassy would have other impacts.

Visas are no longer issued there. Instead, Cubans who want to visit the United States must obtain a visa through a trip to a U.S. embassy in a third country.

“The average Cuban cannot afford that,” Castor said. “That is keeping families apart.”

It’s also hurting scientific exchanges, said Dan Whittle, who directs the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund’s marine and coastal conservation projects in Cuba.

“Environmental cooperation needs to be a two-way exchange,” he said. “Cuban scientists need to be able to obtain visas to come to the United States.”

Those collaborations are especially important to Tampa Bay, Whittle said, because the region shares an ecosystem with Cuba.

Still, the partnership between Tampa’s Florida Aquarium and Havana’s National Aquarium has endured. They work together to save the coral reefs.

Cuban scientists visited Tampa during the Obama years.

Those meetings have been held remotely under Trump, even before the pandemic.

“In a world of connectivity and technology, sharing critical scientific data among our coral scientists is the most important aspect of our collective effort,” said Roger Germann, chief executive officer of The Florida Aquarium. “We continue to work together despite our physical distance.”

Related: Tampa and Cuba, once Cold War enemies, now work together to save the ocean

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently hinted that he wants to redesignate Cuba as a state sponsor of terror. Cuba spent decades on the list until Obama removed it.

If Trump returns Cuba to the list, the University of South Florida would be banned from academic collaborations with Cuba. Florida prohibits state universities from using state money for travel to countries designated as terrorism sponsors.

Biden could again remove Cuba from that list but not until the State Department conducts a formal review.

Suzanne Carlson, the founder of Tarpon Springs’ Carlson Maritime Travel, hopes Biden immediately re-establishes Obama’s Cuba travel policies.

Visits to Cuba solely for tourism have been illegal for six decades, but Obama made travel there easier by establishing “people-to-people” visas that allowed Americans to visit for educational tours and cultural exchanges and without having to provide documented proof of such engagement.

“A boom of American tourists flocked to Cuba, which in turn helped foster new restaurateurs, new entrepreneurial thinking and a new hope,” said Carlson, who booked clients on daily commercial flights from Tampa International Airport to Havana.

Related: Coronavirus, travel rules separate a U.S. inline skate manager from Cuban fiancee

Critics said those visas allowed Americans to illegally visit beach resorts because requirements were fulfilled on the honor system. Trump ended them.

Trump also barred U.S. cruise ships from docking in Cuba, saying that the excursions financially supported an oppressive government.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corp. had offered cruises from Tampa to Havana.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has flown to Cuba four times and helped bring Cuban artists to his city, said those cruises supported the Cuban people.

“To not have those cruise ships delivering visitors to Havana’s doorstep is a huge economic impact to the private businesses,” he said. “For example, where those cruise ships dock is right where there is an artisan market. Hundreds of people sold their work to the visitors.”

Tampa City Councilman Bill Carlson wants the Biden administration to go big and allow trade with Cuba, something Obama fell short of doing.

Carlson is among those who believes Cuba’s Port of Mariel will become a global shipping hub.

TC Mariel, which runs the Cuban port, previously told the Tampa Bay Times that Port Tampa Bay is its preferred U.S. partner because of its proximity to central Florida, home to regional distribution hubs.

Related: Cuba wants access to Orlando market through Port Tampa Bay

“They want Tampa to be their gateway for Asian products to the United States,” Carlson said. “This could transform Tampa’s economy and make Tampa the business capital of Florida.”

Biden would have to reverse a law prohibiting goods from being loaded onto a ship in Cuba and sent to the United States. That restriction includes items created in and coming from a third nation.

Fox of the Alliance said something as “simple” as rolling back Trump’s restrictions on remittances could help the Cuban people “immensely.” Americans are limited to sending $1,000 per quarter to family in Cuba and can’t send anything to non-family members. Remittances were unlimited under Obama.

Western Union closed hundreds of locations across Cuba due to recent U.S. sanctions on its Cuban partner company Fincimex. The Trump administration said Fincimex profits benefit the Cuban government.

“The Cuban people rely on the remittances,” Congresswoman Castor said. “They rely on their families in the United States, especially family in Tampa.”

Fox said such a change can be made with an executive order during Biden’s first days in office. “If he doesn’t, the message is clear — he has the wrong people advising him on Cuba.”

Fox might now have an unlikely ally.

Related: Anti-Trump and anti-Castro, local Cuban hard-liner leader Ralph Fernandez is isolated

Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez, a longtime leader in Florida’s Cuban dissident community, spoke out against Obama’s efforts to normalize relations.

He is softening that stance.

“The Trump policies have been an absolute failure,” he said. “Cuba is used to tightening its belt.”

Pressed if that means he believes the Cuban embargo is not working, Fernandez replied: “Politics is like science. There is an evolution ... I think everything is on the table now.”

Still, he hopes Cuba is not a priority for an administration dealing with a pandemic and politically polarized nation.

“Let the Cubans worry about Cuba,” Fernandez said. “We need to worry about our country.”

The Biden Effect is an ongoing series that looks at what the Biden Administration means for Florida.