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Kriseman leaves for Cuba with hopes of bringing consulate office to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman heads to Cuba this morning in hopes of establishing economic and cultural ties with the island nation.

The three-day trip comes nearly two months after President Barack Obama announced the United States was re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba after 54 years. Kriseman said he will make a pitch that Cuba should pass over rival Florida cities Tampa and Miami and open a consulate office in St. Petersburg.

"I do think the politics in St. Pete are different than those in Tampa and Miami," Kriseman said. "The feelings run deep and strong in those cities. That really isn't the case in St. Pete."

Accompanying Kriseman are Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes and mayoral chief of staff Kevin King. They'll return Sunday.

The Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation will pay for the trip, said Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby. The delegation will fly from Tampa to Havana on a chartered flight.

On the itinerary? Meetings with government, academic and economic development officials, plus a bus tour of the Plaza de la Revolucion.

With Tropical Storm Erika possibly on the way, the city will be run by City Administrator Gary Cornwell, Kirby said. Trip planners have assured Kriseman that if he needs to get back to the city early, he can. Protocols are in place to handle any weather-related emergencies, he said.

Gerdes said he wants to promote the city's marine and medical science industry as an ideal partner for Cuba's world-renowned vaccine and preventive care.

"I'm thinking they can send researchers and doctors to share the theories and we would have the technology to try and test them out and make them real as opposed to theoretical," Gerdes said.

Kriseman said he'll try to find ways to bring the Cuban and St. Petersburg arts communities together.

Council member Darden Rice visited Cuba four years ago as part of a League of Women Voters delegation. She applauded Kriseman's decision.

"Cuba is changing and we need to assert a presence and make relationships," she said.

The mayor said he's prepared for criticism from those who think opening up to Cuba ignores human rights abuses and other civil liberty restrictions by the Cuban dictatorship. Tampa Mayor Dick Greco visited Cuba in July 2002. He was criticized by then-Gov. Jeb Bush for going and then-Tampa mayoral candidate Bob Buckhorn, who said Fidel Castro would exploit Greco's visit.

Now Tampa's mayor, Buckhorn continues to refuse to go. In July, he told the Times that he won't visit Cuba until people there get access to basic democratic freedoms.

But Kriseman said the benefits outweigh the negatives.

"I think this is the right thing for the city of St. Petersburg," he said.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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