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Naming Cuba a terrorist state draws strong pro and con reaction in Tampa

From Obama to Trump and now to Biden, U.S. policy toward the island has whiplashed. “We are tired of it,” one Cuba-born Tampa woman says.
Maria Perez rolls cigars at Nicahabana Cigars in Ybor City. Perez says listing Cuba as a terrorist state will hurt no one but the people of Cuba.
Maria Perez rolls cigars at Nicahabana Cigars in Ybor City. Perez says listing Cuba as a terrorist state will hurt no one but the people of Cuba. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 15
Updated Jan. 15

TAMPA — Consider the impact on the people of Cuba, say Cuban-Americans in Tampa who have strong feelings about placing the island-nation on the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism.

But after a whiplash of policy moves toward Cuba under the last two presidents, sharp divisions remain about what that impact might be.

Just 90 minutes off Florida’s shores, Cuba has no business as the latest entry on the list with North Korea, Syria and Iran, opponents say. The decision was announced Monday by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo during the final two weeks of the Trump administration.

“It changes back and forth and that affects people directly; we are tired of it,” said Cuba-born Maria Perez, 52, who works at Nicahabana Cigars in Ybor City. “It’s not the regime that loses, but ordinary people.”

Rick Nelson, owner of The Fulfillment Lab in Town N' Country, wants to see the U.S. pressure Cuba more with moves like designating it a terrorist state. It's the only way, Nelson said, to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to the island nation.
Rick Nelson, owner of The Fulfillment Lab in Town N' Country, wants to see the U.S. pressure Cuba more with moves like designating it a terrorist state. It's the only way, Nelson said, to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to the island nation. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Among its effects, the listing triggers restrictions on interaction between the two nations. With Cuba in mind, Florida passed a law in 2006 that prohibits travel to any country on the terrorist state list using money that flows through state universities.

But others say Cuba is right where it belongs on the list.

“Just take a look at those who are part of Cuba’s circle — Venezuela, Iran, Russia, North Korea,” said Alexander Rodriguez, 48, of Tampa, who works with a finance company.

As an entrepreneur, Rick Nelson, 45, said he supports keeping the pressure on Cuba’s government to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit that can help improve life in the island nation.

“Unfortunately, that pursuit is not permitted to the millions of Cubans who are living under an oppressive regime,” said Nelson, who owns the Town N’ Country shipping company The Fulfillment Lab. “My family is from Cuba and the Cuban people will never be free until they are given true liberty.”

Related: Tampa-Cuba ties forged under Obama frayed under Trump. Now, it’s Biden’s turn.

With its historical and cultural ties to the island nation, Tampa has the third-largest population of Cuban immigrants of any region in the U.S., behind South Florida and New Jersey.

Returning Cuba to the list of terrorist nations was the last in a series of Trump administration measures reversing moves by President Barack Obama to normalize relations between the two nations. After the rise of Fidel Castro and communism in the late 1950s, the U.S. imposed a travel and trade embargo.

The Obama administration had removed Cuba from the list.

Pompeo defended the new move, saying Cuba continues to host fugitives, supports socialist President Nicolás Maduro in strife-torn Venezuela, and refuses to extradite a group of Colombian extremists linked to a police academy car bombing in Colombia in 2019 that killed 22.

“The Trump Administration has been focused from the start on denying the Castro regime the resources it uses to oppress its people at home and countering its malign interference in Venezuela and the rest of the Western Hemisphere,” Pompeo said Monday.

Listing as a terrorist state further limits travel between Cuba and the U.S. and money sent to support relatives back home. Commercial and charter flights from the United States to cities other than Havana already were banned and a $1,000-per-quarter limit had been placed on remittances.

Cuban exiles in the U.S. pose a greater terrorist threat than the Cuban government they are sworn to overthrow, said Maura Barrios, 71, of Tampa, an activist with the Cuban American Alliance and Cuba Vive of Tampa Bay.

As an example, she cited Luis Posada Carriles, who worked with the CIA in a number of covert actions against the Castro government before he was linked by the FBI to a terrorist group blamed in a Cuban airliner bombing that killed 73. Carries died in Miami in 2018.

Barrios, who has visited Cuba 15 times, questioned why listing Cuba as a terrorist state came so late in Trump’s single term.

“They remembered the Cuban exiles at the last minute,” she said. “Even they know Cuba does not sponsor or commit terrorist acts in the U.S., some exiles do.”

Domingo Noriega: "This is just Trump administration paying his debts to those Cuban Americans stuck in the past, who can’t seem to see the light and voted for him in Florida."
Domingo Noriega: "This is just Trump administration paying his debts to those Cuban Americans stuck in the past, who can’t seem to see the light and voted for him in Florida." [ Courtesy of D. Noriega ]

The move will hinder any steps toward normalization by President-elect Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, said Domingo Noriega of Tampa, a Cuban-born civil engineer.

And it further ingratiates Trump with the Cuban exile community in South Florida, which helped Trump carry Florida during his failed re-election bid, Noriega said.

“Let’s stop being hypocritical,” said Noriega, 60, who came to the United States when he was 20. “We all know that Cuba is up to its neck economically and is not a factor in global terrorism today.”

He added, “This will bring more deprivation to ordinary Cubans, to ordinary people, and it will not change anything there.”