On Tampa City Council, a debate over Cuba support still simmers

Bill Carlson says he was misunderstood about his Cuba stance. He wants more discussion about the island nation at a Sept. 23 workshop.
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson said his stance on the Cuba protests has been misunderstood.
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson said his stance on the Cuba protests has been misunderstood. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published July 21, 2021|Updated July 21, 2021

TAMPA — It’s been all-Cuba, all the time in the week since the Tampa City Council formally voiced its support for the recent protests against the island’s communist regime.

Related: Viera gets formal support for Cuban struggle after a fight

In a 5-2 vote, after two hours of often-heated debate at Thursday’s council meeting, council member Luis Viera’s resolution in support of the protesters was approved.

So was a one-sentence statement by council member Bill Carlson expressing more general support for Cuba, which passed unanimously after a fight over which measure they would adopt first.

All the while, protests have continued and Mayor Jane Castor has weighed in on Viera’s side.

Carlson, though, said his position has been misunderstood: He supports Cuba, but thinks Viera’s resolution doesn’t do the job.

He successfully argued that his fellow council members should undertake a deeper discussion about Cuba at a Sept. 23 workshop.

He wants to discuss the embargo and the travel ban as well as the protesters’ plight, he said.

“They’re saying we can’t have freedom and food. We can do both,” Carlson said Wednesday.

The other council member who voted against Viera’s resolution, John Dingfelder, didn’t say anything during the last week’s meeting.

Dingfelder explained his vote to the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday.

“I’m often very hesitant on City Council jumping into national issues and potential partisan issues, but I’m definitely supportive of any country , including Cuba, where people are looking for greater freedoms,” said Dingfelder, who added that Viera’s two-page resolution was “way too complex.”

Congresswoman Kathy Castor is in a better position than any council member to press the Cuban people’s case, he said.

“I don’t think that’s why we were elected,” Dingfelder said. “I think we were elected to focus on local issues.”

Viera doesn’t agree with Dingfelder and he made clear to the Times Wednesday that he wasn’t working with Carlson on anything.

The son of Cuban refugees who fled Castro in 1960, Viera said he’s always open to a discussion about how to help the Cuban people, but thinks Carlson’s comments and vote were wrongheaded.

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera has led the local government effort to show support for Cuban protesters.
Tampa City Council member Luis Viera has led the local government effort to show support for Cuban protesters. [ Charlie Frago ]

“Obviously, there are a great many things we can do to help the people of Cuba. The first thing we can do is to start with a statement of moral clarity without equivocation about the system that they are risking their lives to defeat,” Viera said. “That’s step one. I supported Councilman Carlson’s motion thereafter in regards to Cuban charities. To me that is just as non-controversial as the resolution that he expressed outrage on and voted against.”

Carlson’s exchange with Viera at the meeting has been widely discussed in Tampa political circles. A clip of their interaction is circulating on social media.

At the meeting, Carlson, who represents South Tampa, called Viera’s resolution and news conference with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Hillsborough County Tax Collector Nancy Millan and State Senator Janet Cruz a “publicity stunt.”

Viera hasn’t forgotten.

Meanwhile, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor left little doubt what side she is on at a Saturday rally in Tampa.

“We hear the brave voices of the people of Cuba and we stand in support of each and every one of you,” she said to loud cheers. “We stand united with the Cuban people 500 miles away and across our community. I sincerely believe their courage is moving us closer to a dream of free Cuba. Tampa would not be the great city it is today without Cubans, who have been a crucial part of this community for more than a century.”

Viera said that he’ll be pushing at the workshop for “moral clarity” on what has happened in Cuba since everyday people took to the streets earlier this month and were met with force and intimidation by the Cuban government.

Carlson said he hopes the workshop will find common ground.

“One of the slogans currently being used in Miami is ‘the Cuban people need freedom not food.’ I disagree — they need both,” Carlson wrote in an email. “To ignore the humanitarian need is inhumane. The Tampa City Council has no power over U.S. foreign policy or military intervention, but we can use our platform to ask the community to support local nonprofits that directly help the Cuban people.”

His public relations and crisis strategy firm Tucker/Hall has worked on Cuban engagement issues for decades, but Carlson said almost all of that work has been free. He said his firm has invested lots of money in Cuba over the years. He argues that President Joe Biden should lift the travel ban and the embargo.

“We have never profited from our stance on Tampa-Cuba relations and we plan to continue investing our own time and money to promote this historic linkage,” said Carlson of his firm.