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Tampa Bay area starts to feel sting of Trump policies to reverse engagement with Cuba

For decades, Tampa’s Albert Fox advocates for greater engagement with Cuba through his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy in Tampa. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Jun. 14

TAMPA — A historic day needs a name, so those who have supported engagement with Cuba came up with one.

Some started calling it D-17 — for Dec. 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama announced that the United States was normalizing relations with the communist island nation.

But just weeks before the second anniversary of D-17, Donald Trump was elected president and has made good on his campaign promise to roll back Obama policies that enabled people in Tampa Bay to take commercial flights and cruises to Cuba, forge stronger academic and cultural exchanges, and entertain hopes that one day the area might host a new Cuban consulate.

"I have been studying this issue for a long time and this is the most serious point yet," said Albert A. Fox Jr. of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy in Tampa. "We are really going backwards and it is just a shame."

READ MORE: Traveling aboard Southwest 3952, first commercial flight from Tampa to Cuba in five decades

Fox had a hand before and after D-17 in establishing links among U.S. and Cuban interests, including a coral reef research partnership involving the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and an accord on oil spill cleanups.

Neither link is under threat yet from the new Trump policy but Fox isn't betting that they won't be considering the reverses already made: No more visas issued by the U.S. embassy in Havana, cutbacks on how much money Cuban-Americans can send to relatives on the island, and greenlighting lawsuits by Americans who seek compensation from companies that use nationalized property in Cuba.

The University of Tampa is feeling the sting already.

The school's Center for José Martí Studies is bringing 30 U.S. scholars to campus next week to learn the history of Tampa's role in the Cuban War of Independence during the 1890s.

But Cubans now must travel to a third county to obtain a U.S. travel visa. That proved too pricey for one Havana professor booked as a lecturer at the Martí event, so he cancelled.

The difficulty obtaining visas may prevent Cuban artists from coming here for cultural exchanges, too, said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, whose cruise to Cuba was diverted the day after the Trump administration banned maritime travel to the island.

"I would not be surprised to see a full rollback" of Obama's Cuba policies, Kriseman said. "This administration has tried to roll back anything that has Obama's name on it."

READ MORE: Mayor Kriseman among passengers diverted at sea under Trump's new Cuba travel restrictions

One option Trump may consider is putting Cuba back among the handful of nations designated by the U.S. State Department as state sponsors of terror. Obama removed Cuba after the nation spent decades on the list.

"I would hope that wouldn't happen," said Patrick Manteiga, who advocates for détente through his La Gaceta Newspaper in Ybor City. "I don't know what evidence anyone could find to put Cuba there."

Then again, Manteiga lamented, "anything is possible."

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.

Florida is the only state with this restriction.

USF has conducted Cuba trips for students in the past, but has none planned now.

The restriction would not apply to private University of Tampa.

The new restrictions are counterproductive if they're intended to help the people of Cuba, said Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson, a long-time advocate for engagement with Cuba.

Carlson has visited Cuba more than 20 times and has never heard support for more restrictions from the people he speaks to there, he said. Cuba's private sector wants more American travelers, not fewer, he said.

The Trump administration "claims to be fighting for the rights of the Cuban people," Carlson said. "But the Cuban people want engagement."

What's more, he said, polls show that most Americans want that, too — even among Cuba Americans in Miami who are the most strident opponents of the country's current regime.

READ MORE: Cuban officials touring St. Petersburg this weekend as they eye consulate location

A 2018 survey by Florida International University found that 63 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami support open diplomatic relations with Cuba and 57 percent favor lifting all travel restrictions. They were evenly divided on the longer term question of whether to lift entirely the travel and trade embargo that the U.S. imposed on Cuba in the early 1960s.

Standing in the way of engagement, Manteiga said, is that it's the No. 1 issue among many who oppose it.

"We can have a million people in our corner, and they could have 1,000 in theirs," he said. "But our million are not going to make this their top priority."

That's why it took Obama seven years to move toward normalization, Manteiga said.

If people favor engagement in Tampa Bay, home to the third largest Cuban American population, they need to reach out to their elected officials with the same passion as the hardliners, he said.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, has worked toward greater engagement, too, and said Congress needs to act.

Castor said she encourages "churches, universities and arts organizations to continue to build ties between the American people and the Cuban people.

"I know that people in the Tampa Bay area will continue to travel to Cuba and build humanitarian ties."

Without action from Congress, said Fox with the Cuba alliance, even a president who favors engagement will have trouble restoring it.

"It will take the whole first term," he said, "to roll back what this president has done."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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