Cuban ambassador’s dinner in Tampa sparks protest, scorn

Cuban Ambassador Lianys Torres Rivera was dining at Mise en Place with local officials when protesters disrupted their evening.
Mise en Place in downtown Tampa.
Mise en Place in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published March 4|Updated March 5

TAMPA — A band of Cuban dissidents protested inside an expensive Tampa restaurant Friday night, disrupting a meeting between Cuban Ambassador Lianys Torres Rivera and a group of business officials and local politicians.

The protest was around 7:30 p.m. at Mise en Place, the French-inspired fine dining staple near the Oxford Exchange and across from the University of Tampa. The incident was captured on a cellphone of one of the protesters, who chanted anti-Havana regime slogans and questioned the ambassador’s presence in Tampa.

Torres was with her husband and Nora Albertis Monterrey, the Cuban consul in Washington. They were meeting with Guido Maniscalco, the Tampa City Council member who represents West Tampa; Karen Perez, a Hillsborough County School Board member; and Cindy Stuart, the Hillsborough clerk of court and comptroller. Earlier on Friday, Torres met with a group of reporters and editors at the Tampa Bay Times and Centro Tampa, a weekly Spanish-language tabloid owned by the Times Publishing Co.

Accompanying Torres on Friday was Albert Fox, who has worked for years from Tampa to open up relations with Cuba. In recent months, Torres has met with business officials, local politicians and supporters in Miami, Tampa and other Florida cities to discuss travel restrictions and remittances to the island nation.

Last year, President Joe Biden’s administration lifted some restrictions on flights to Cuba imposed by former President Donald Trump. The restrictions had prevented U.S. airline flights and chartered flights from going to Cuban cities other than Havana. Biden also removed the $1,000-per-quarter cap on family remittances to relatives in Cuba.

In the recording from Friday night, a dissident is heard rebuking Torres and asking why there are so many political prisoners in Cuba. Torres can be seen in the video standing in the back near the bar as the protesters shout over restaurant staff and other guests shielding the ambassador. Among those standing across from the protesters appears to be former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has been a longtime advocate of establishing cultural and business ties with Cuba. He couldn’t be reached Saturday.

The Cuban dissidents were led by Roberto Pizano, 84, a member of Casa Cuba in Tampa and a prisoner for 18 years under Castro’s reign. Also there was his son, Rafael Pizano Jr., 42, who has worked with international movements seeking the release of dissidents.

The recording shows Roberto Pizano criticizing the ambassador and portraying her as representing a regime that violates human rights and imprisons peaceful opponents.

“You are a representative of Cuba’s murderous government, and you have come to Tampa to eat?” said Pizano. Pizano is also seen in the recording addressing Maniscalco and Perez, shouting angrily: “You are supporting a murderous government!”

Pizano Jr. said it was a coincidence that he found the Cuban ambassador at the restaurant.

“Me and my father had come to eat as a family and to remember my sister, Anh-Kay Pizano, on the first anniversary of her death,” he said. “As we entered, we saw the Cuban ambassador, who is the face and representative of the communist regime that so many Cubans manifested against on July 11, 2021.”

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A series of protests against the Cuban regime began on July 11. It was the first of their kind in six decades of communist rule, driven by shortages of food, rising prices, medicine and electricity.

Pizano Jr. told the Times that he felt offended “beyond words” to see the Cuban ambassador in Tampa, which has one of the largest Cuban populations in the U.S.

“And I was appalled that Maniscalco, Stuart and Perez were dining with such a person with no regard for our local, diverse community,” he said.

Perez said she had been curious to listen to what Torres had to say.

“I attended this dinner to understand more about the perspective of Cuba on Cuban-American relations,” Perez told the Times. “For me, this was an educational endeavor to hear one perspective, but certainly I understand that it is not the only perspective. I’ve always felt the more information I have, the better I can serve our community.”

Phone calls to Maniscalco and Fox about the incident were not returned. Calls and emails to the office of the Cuban Embassy and its spokesperson, Abel Derivet in Washington, D.C., were not returned.

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera wrote on his Twitter account that he heard the Cuban ambassador was in Tampa. He also posted a photo of the slogan “Patria y Vida, homeland and life” — the name of a hip-hop song by Cuban musicians in exile that has become the soundtrack of the Cuban liberation movement.

“We stand united against the principles of the brutal Communist Cuban regime and with their victims and their families,” wrote Viera. “Though some of us disagree on the means to the end, the vast majority of our Tampa is united behind the right of the Cuban people to be in charge of their own destiny as free people.”

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a former Florida governor, criticized the presence of the ambassador in Tampa.

“I’m furious that the ‘ambassador’ for Cuba’s illegitimate communist regime was in Tampa last night,” he wrote on Twitter.