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  1. Florida Politics

Joe Biden: Toxic U.S. politics could undermine Western Hemisphere opportunity and security

Vice President Joe Biden speaks to Tampa business leaders regarding the unification of the Western Hemisphere at the University of Tampa.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks to Tampa business leaders regarding the unification of the Western Hemisphere at the University of Tampa.
Published May 11, 2016

TAMPA — Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday said the Obama administration has worked to foster trade and fight corruption throughout the Americas, but warned that a toxic presidential campaign could hurt relationships between the United States and its Western Hemisphere allies.

"I understand what it means to be in a heated election," Biden told a crowd of several hundred business, political, educational and military leaders at the University of Tampa.

"But," he added, "by insulting our partners throughout the hemisphere, by tarring all immigrants with a xenophobic brush, some leaders are actively undermining our security and our prosperity. Make no mistake: Our future right here is in this hemisphere."

Biden did not mention presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump by name. But he said leaders of other Western Hemisphere nations have responded well to seven years of a U.S. policy of engagement and now are dismayed by talk of building walls to keep out immigrants and political discourse that threatens to alienate 55 million Americans of Hispanic descent.

"Everyone, everyone, everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect," Biden said. "It's just basic."

Biden touched on various issues and themes in his hour-long speech: the expansion of the Panama Canal, the administration's support of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (which he said has already prompted Mexico to raise its labor standards), the challenge of responding to climate change, the importance of promoting non-violent societies abroad, the need for open, democratic governance and the pursuit of reliable sources of energy for emerging economies.

All are inter-connected, each benefits from nation-to-nation relationships based on respect, and each figures prominently in the fortunes of the U.S. economy and general well-being, Biden said.

"There is no separating our future from the fate of our neighbors," he said.

Biden made no news on forthcoming initiatives with Cuba. He only said the U.S. opening to Havana is creating new opportunities, but Washington still has "real issues" with the Castro government about guaranteeing "basic freedoms" for the Cuban people.

"We're going to continue to raise these issues," he said.

Biden's speech came as the Obama administration works on unresolved issues that go with its 18-month effort to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, and the vice president is seen as playing a major role in settling at least some of those issues.

John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said he's hearing from those "actively close to the Cuba issue" that Biden may go to Cuba by the end of the year.

The purpose of the trip, Kavulich said, would be for Biden to serve as a "closer" on negotiating settlements of certified claims that U.S. citizens and businesses have against Havana for private property seized and nationalized by the Communists in the 1960s.

Nearly 6,000 claims total almost $2 billion.

On another front, experts tell the Tampa Bay Times that the United States and Cuba are working on an agreement that would allow them to work together if an oil spill threatened either nation's coast.

Part of that agreement would be expected to include arrangements for joint training exercises involving the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard along with their Cuban counterparts.

Oil spill mitigation in the Caribbean is a familiar topic for Biden. Last week, he chaired the U.S.-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit, a meeting of energy ministers and national leaders from around the region. While the meeting did not include Cuba, its agenda did call for promoting environmental safety.

Tampa's business community has been in touch with Biden and his staff for several years.

After a chamber mission that took elected officials and other Tampa leaders to Cuba three years ago, a local delegation met with Biden in the West Wing to emphasize "how supportive we were and still are of broadening the relationship" with Cuba, chamber president and CEO Bob Rohrlack said.

That group included Rohrlack, then chamber chairman Greg Celestan, future chairman Ronald Christaldi, and board members Patrick Baskette and Vince Cassidy. They were part of chamber mission that had recently made the chamber's first visit to Cuba. With Biden, they talked about the importance of transportation, both via Tampa International Airport and Port Tampa Bay.

Afterward, Biden asked the Tampa representatives to elaborate on their experience in and impressions of Cuba with members of his foreign policy team, Rohrlack said. And after that, Tampa business leaders kept in touch with Biden's office. The Tampa chamber was one of 15 nationwide selected to receive White House briefings on three topics of its choice.

Tampa's leaders asked for briefings on international affairs, transportation and health care, Rohrlack said. All have been points of focus for the chamber as it has organized two subsequent trips to Cuba.

Last month, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce got a call from the Obama administration asking if the chamber could host the speech — preferably at a location with character and a backstory.

Chamber leaders chose the University of Tampa, originally built by railroad baron Henry B. Plant as the Tampa Bay Hotel. In 1898, the hotel served as the jumping-off point for the U.S. troops who fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. For more than a century since, its Moorish minarets have laid claim to topping Tampa's most distinctive local landmark. Now the campus is in the midst of a building boom.

"You just walk in there, you feel the history," Rohrlack said.

While mayors Bob Buckhorn of Tampa and Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg attended Biden's speech, the vice president did not touch on the location of a future Cuban consulate. That's a prize that Kriseman, the Tampa chamber and the Tampa City Council — but not Buckhorn — have all sought publicly.

Not hearing anything about the consulate came as no surprise to Rohrlack.

"There's still a lot more that has to be done on that," he said.

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times and @PGuzzoTimes