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U.S.-Cuba relations strain again, but ambassador hopes for stronger Tampa ties

José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States, has been visiting the Tampa area. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ   |   Centro]
José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States, has been visiting the Tampa area. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Centro]
Published Jun. 25, 2019

TAMPA — Relations between the United States and Cuba thawed briefly under President Obama and are growing cold again under President Trump with the return of restrictions on travel.

But, José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba's ambassador to the United States, said in a visit to the Tampa area this week that his country's ties with this region may continue to grow.

One example: Expanding upon the collaborative research between Havana's National Aquarium and Tampa's Florida Aquarium, now focused on saving coral reefs throughout the Caribbean.

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

"We are exploring several ideas on how to extend that cooperation, which is so far bilateral, to include other countries in the Caribbean," Cabañas told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday. Environmental issues are "about the survival for Cuba and many parts in the south of the United States."

Florida Aquarium spokesperson Kari Goetz said, "We are open to working with anyone on coral restoration."

What's more, Cabañas hopes to interest local mayors in attending his country's week-long celebration in November of the capital Havana's 500th anniversary — perhaps on Mayor's Day.

"Mayors from many places in the world are coming to Cuba," he said.

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

Cabañas extended an invitation to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman during a Monday morning meeting.

"He would not accept just yet," Cabañas said, noting that Kriseman has traveled to Cuba several times and favors normalizing relations. "He said, 'Thank you for the invite and I will consider that.'"

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor will receive an invitation also, Cabañas said.

Neither mayor could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Citing a prior engagement, Castor did not meet with Cabañas during his local visit this week. But Tampa City Councilman Bill Carlson, who has been advocating for normalization since 1999, did.

If Castor does not travel to Havana in November, Carlson said, he is willing to officially represent the city.

During his Monday morning meeting with Cabañas, Carlson said, they discussed furthering Cuba's arts and cultural exchanges with Tampa and strengthening joint ventures already underway.

Carlson also discussed making Tampa the U.S. gateway for container- ship traffic coming from Asia via the Port of Mariel, an industrial center encompassing some 180 square miles west of Havana that features factories, storage for trade, and a marine terminal.

Some see the Port of Mariel as a possible trans-shipment hub for gulf ports in the United States. But the U.S. travel and trade embargo against Cuba, now in its sixth decade, prohibits such a relationship.

"You call it the embargo," Cabañas said. "We call it the blockade."

Carlson also presented Cabañas with a resolution passed unanimously by Tampa City Council earlier this month condemning any restrictions on American travel to Cuba.

But his nation has been hurt far more by the decades of restrictions than by new Trump-era bans on educational group travel and cruises to the island nation, Cabañas said.

"We debate in Cuba if cruiseliners are profitable or not for Cuba," he said.

"Visitors spend most mornings on board and not visiting the place. ... In terms of the economy, it is not that large of an amount of money we are lacking now because the cruises aren't coming."

Still, Cabañas admitted, some Cubans who depend on cruise passengers — such as taxi drivers and private restaurant owners — will be hurt.

The cruises made possible under Obama's policy of normalization — including Carnival's connections between Tampa and Havana — generated an economic impact of $120 million economic impact on Cuba in 2018, said John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

As the Obama administration reached out to Cuba, talk even turned to placing a Cuban consulate in Tampa or St. Petersburg.

No such discussions are underway between the two nations today, Cabañas said, but if they start, the cities would not have a say.

"This is not something a local government can decide," he said. "It will be decided on the federal level."

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

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