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

The Cuban consular general and his second in command were in town Saturday to tour St. Petersburg, shown here from just south of downtown with Fourth Street running north.
The Cuban consular general and his second in command were in town Saturday to tour St. Petersburg, shown here from just south of downtown with Fourth Street running north.
Published Jul. 31, 2016

Tampa has the historic and cultural link to Cuba, but it might be St. Petersburg that lands the first Cuban Consulate in the United States in more than five decades.

Alejandro Padrón, Cuba's consular general from its embassy in Washington, D.C., and his second in command, Armando Bencomo, were in St. Petersburg on Saturday and took a tour of its real estate assets that was led by Dave Goodwin, the city's director of planning and economic development.

Such a tour did not take place in Tampa.

"They have some interest in our city and they want to get to know more about it," said Joni James, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, which along with the University of South Florida's Patel College of Global Sustainability sponsored the delegation's trip.

"We are happy to help them learn what a great place it would be to have a consulate."

Kanika Tomalin, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, described the tour as "pretty comprehensive" but did not provide specifics on where they visited.

"They will understand what the city can offer their goals," she said.

There is competition between Tampa and St. Petersburg to host the Cuban Consulate.

The Tampa City Council, Hills- borough County Commission and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce have voted in favor of bringing the consulate to their community.

The chamber also sent a delegation to Cuba in May 2015.

Each has heavily promoted that Tampa and Cuba share a connection dating to the founding of Ybor City in the late 1800s by immigrants from the island nation.

Later, Tampa was a staging ground for Cuba's War of Independence against colonialist Spain. And with Cuban tobacco, Tampa would go on to become Cigar City.

But the St. Petersburg City Council voted for a consulate to open in that city as well.

The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership also sent two delegations to Cuba in the past year and welcomed one from the island nation to its city in December.

Perhaps most importantly, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has established a personal relationship with the Cuban government through two trips to the island nation.

On one of those he met with Gustavo Machin, deputy director for American affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the agency that will decide which U.S. city gets the first Cuban Consulate.

No Tampa elected officials have met with that agency.

"We are honored to welcome these dignitaries to St. Petersburg and continue the conversation we started nearly one year ago," Kriseman said via text message while on vacation.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was also on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Buckhorn previously has said that while he would not stop a Cuban Consulate from opening in Tampa, he would not lend his support to such an endeavor until the communist nation shows evidence of increased freedoms.

Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Capin believes Buckhorn's attitude is hurting her city's chances to get the consulate.

"It is very sad that our mayor has been AWOL on this subject. Cuba is part of this city's history. He doesn't seem to understand that," she said.

"I commend Mayor Kriseman for picking up the baton that Mayor Buckhorn let go and working to keep the Cuban Consulate in our area."

There has been no Cuban Consulate in the United States since diplomatic relations were severed in 1961. Now that they are re-established, the island nation is seeking a city to again host a consulate.

Cuba's embassy in Washington, D.C., serves its nation's political interests. Among the duties of a consulate would be issuing visas and promoting and assisting with trade and other business ventures. Beyond that, Capin said, it will bring international recognition to whatever city lands the first.

"The world is closely watching improving relationship between the U.S. and Cuba," she said.

Florida, with the highest Cuban American population in the United States, will likely receive the first consulate in the nation.

Miami has the most Cuban American residents but its mayor, Tomás Regalado, has said a consulate is not welcome in his city.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has traveled to Cuba and met with the same officials as Kriseman did. But the Miami Beach Commission recently voted 4-3 to oppose the idea of a consulate.

Bill Carlson, president of Tucker Hall, a public relations agency in Tampa that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999, commends St. Petersburg's elected officials for pushing for the consulate.

"Kriseman is emerging as the mayor of the Tampa Bay region," Carlson said. "Connecting our region to Cuba is the first big step toward making us a global destination."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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