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As St. Pete's Kriseman makes plans to visit Cuba, Tampa's Buckhorn looks elsewhere

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn
Published Jul. 23, 2015

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman didn't hide his glee earlier this week when the United States and Cuba reopened their long-closed embassies.

"This can only mean great things for the Sunshine City and the Tampa Bay area," Kriseman said on Twitter and Facebook, where he repeated his intent to visit Cuba.

Yet only 23 miles to the east, the same diplomatic breakthrough drew a mere shrug from another Democratic mayor, Bob Buckhorn of Tampa.

"I'm more focused on redeveloping Tampa than I am Havana," Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. "I'm not standing in the way of others though."

Buckhorn said he refuses to visit Cuba until people there get access to basic democratic freedoms.

"This can't just be one way street — a dash for cash, so to speak," Buckhorn said.

His aloofness is at odds with some in Tampa, from the business chamber to other elected officials, many of whom have visited Cuba already and have been actively pushing for better relations with Havana.

"Having Kriseman go to Cuba will definitely help regional efforts," said Bill Carlson, president of the Tampa communications firm Tucker/Hall. "But it would also help if Tampa went too."

Tampa, Carlson said, is well-positioned to score a Cuban consulate office over Miami, which is more hostile to the Castro regime.

Buckhorn has said that he is open to the idea of such an office but that he would not seek it out.

It's hard to ignore Buckhorn's political ambitions in assessing his ambivalence toward Cuba. Could it be that Buckhorn's antipathy is calculated for a speculated run for governor in 2018, where he would appeal more to South Florida's Cuban exiles?

After all, he is alone in Tampa, where U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, another Democrat, has been a forceful advocate for reconciliation with Cuba. No one on the Tampa City Council opposes relations with the island.

But Buckhorn said his views on Cuba have nothing to do with politics. For him, he says, it's personal.

He flew with the Brothers to the Rescue in the 1990s that searched for Cuban rafters trying reach Florida. And he denounced former Mayor Dick Greco's trip to Cuba in 2002.

"This for me has been a passion for a long time," Buckhorn said. "When the day comes the embargo is lifted, there will be plenty of opportunities for Tampa to take advantage of that."

His anti-Castro stance cheers exiles like Mario Quevedo, a former Spanish-language radio and newspaper editor in Tampa who left Cuba when he was 15.

"Mayor Buckhorn has always been a friend of our community," said Quevedo, 70. "I don't think it has anything to do with politics."

But Buckhorn's refusal to visit is a missed opportunity because it will do nothing to improve relations, said Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, whose father moved to Tampa from Cuba in 1911.

"The only way it can happen is people getting together," Miranda said. "There's 11.5 million people in Cuba who had nothing to do with what happened."

Kriseman seems eager to fill the void. While he wouldn't speculate about Buckhorn's reasons for not wanting to go, Kriseman said he wouldn't mind if St. Petersburg was picked as a Tampa Bay-based consulate office.

"We in St. Petersburg don't have to deal with a lot of the political issues that Tampa and Miami and other communities have to deal with," Kriseman said. "In some ways that makes us more attractive."

Kriseman said the motivation for his trip, which he hopes to make before the end of the year, is simple. He said he doesn't want to cede any ground when it comes to economic development, whether with Cuba or other places.

"We're going to be a player," Kriseman said.

City spokesman Ben Kirby said the administration is still working on details of Kriseman's trip, which they are planning with the help of Al Fox Jr., founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. The Tampa-based nonprofit helped arrange a similar trip taken by a delegation of Pinellas residents in January.

Kirby said the plan is to keep the St. Petersburg group small. It likely would include city officials and business people. No taxpayer funds will be used, he said.

Buckhorn said he's focused on developing trade with countries like Brazil, Colombia and Panama.

"If I'm going to burn my political capital internationally, I'm going to do it with trading partners that can produce real results and produce real jobs and contracts for Tampa and Florida businesses."

Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

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