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Protests in Cuba get Tampa City Council’s support, but it wasn’t quick or smooth

Two hours of debate saw council members take shots and umbrage before they approved Luis Viera’s resolution in support of Cuban protests.
Tampa City Council member Luis Viera's resolution in support of protests in Cuba was approved Thursday, but only after two hours of often heated debate.
Tampa City Council member Luis Viera's resolution in support of protests in Cuba was approved Thursday, but only after two hours of often heated debate. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jul. 15
Updated Jul. 20

TAMPA — It took hours. And tempers flared. But the Cuban people protesting their government in the streets, and being beaten and jailed for those protests, now have a resolution from Tampa City Council voicing the city’s support for their struggle.

Council member Luis Viera’s resolution expressing solidarity with the Cuban protesters and hopes for political reform in Cuba was approved 5-2 on Thursday.

Council member John Dingfelder and Bill Carlson voted no.

Dingfelder didn’t give a reason, but Carlson said Viera’s resolution and a press conference held with U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, Hillsborough County Tax Collector Nancy Millan and State Sen. Janet Cruz earlier this week was a “publicity stunt.”

“If we make a statement that’s not going to do anything, then it’s a publicity stunt,” Carlson said.

Carlson’s public-relations firm, Tucker/Hall, has been active in engagement activities in Cuba for more than 20 years. Carlson has said he has recused himself from all business that might conflict with this City Council duties.

Viera, normally placid, erupted. Taking off his glasses, the son of Cubans who fled in 1960, said critics of what he called a unifying document that voices support for the Cuban people shouldn’t be subject to personal attacks.

“You better check yourselves before you wreck yourselves,” Viera said.

Al Fox, perhaps Tampa’s most visible supporter of the Cuban government and considering a U.S Senate Democratic primary run, said council members should avoid legislating in the height of passion.

And Carlson said Viera’s resolution could spark an armed conflict, pointing to recent comments by Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who floated U.S. air strikes in support of protest that began in Cuba on Sunday.

Viera said talk of a non-binding resolution being tantamount to causing a war was preposterous. He grew emotional speaking of his relatives and other Cubans who will likely never see their home again.

Giving support to the aspirations of those who want liberty and democracy “should not be controversial,” Viera said.

Viera wasn’t the only council member with strong feelings on the issue. Guido Maniscalco, whose mother fled Cuba, said the corrupt regime didn’t deserve deference.

“It’s communism for the masses and capitalism for those in power,” he said.

Charlie Miranda, whose father was Cuban, said he knew Tampa couldn’t influence the policies of the American or Cuban governments, but he didn’t see anything in Viera’s resolution that would start a war.

“It’s not in there,” he said. He would vote yes, he said, also emotionally, because he had witnessed first-hand the hardship, ingenuity and spirit of the Cuban people’s “march toward freedom.”

The debate often became tangled in parliamentary maneuver. Carlson wanted a one-sentence motion expressing vague support for the people’s economic and political freedom. Originally meant to replace Viera’s resolution, it eventually won unanimous initial approval after Viera’s measure was passed.

Council members later approved Carlson’s resolution.

Viera said he was surprised that it took so long to pass his resolution.

The debate also frustrated Miranda, who said — “we’re back in elementary school” — in the midst of an argument about whether Viera or Carlson’s motion would be voted on first.

Ultimately, Chairman Orlando Gudes said Viera’s motion would go first. And he said, as a Black man, he identified with the struggle of the Cuban people.

Gudes also drew parallels to the Black experience in America and the racism that still exists in this country, as did other speakers during public comment.

Connie Burton, a longtime Tampa activist, said Viera’s resolution was “worthless” and the council’s energy should be spent on transforming majority-Black East Tampa into a model community.

But Gudes said he was impressed by “the humanistic nature” of Viera’s resolution and said the Cuban people, like those in Africa and the United States, were empowering themselves.

One unidentified man, who said he was 52 and fled Cuba 27 years ago, told council members that a formal show of support from the city of Tampa would make a difference to his fellow Cubans.

“We need the support of all of the communities in the free world,” the man said during public comment.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Tampa City Council has formally approved a motion by Bill Carlson expressing a one-sentence support for Cuban people. An earlier version had indicated the measure was headed for approval as it was written before the final vote.