ST. PETERSBURG — Cuba's first ambassador to the United States in more than 50 years has seen the impact of renewed bilateral ties between the two countries continue to grow over the last two years
José Ramón Cabañas, the former head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., and one of three main Cuban negotiators to help re-establish ties, shared the changes he's observed with a crowd of about 250 people at St. Petersburg College's downtown campus Saturday.
There are the 22 memorandums of understanding that have been signed since 2015, including those on the environment and health, and one re-establishing direct flights.
There's the massive increase in Americans visiting Cuba, with numbers expected to quadruple between 2016 and 2017.
There are the cruise ships that now roll through, carrying thousands of visitors who are welcomed by the sight of a waving American flag.
"You still have the travel ban," Cabañas said, "but the reality is many more Americans are coming to Cuba."
These changes are evident perhaps most clearly here in Tampa Bay, where direct flights depart daily from Tampa International Airport and people regularly board ships in Channelside to sail down to the nearby island.
It was a county that, for decades, couldn't seem farther away. But for those in Tampa, it's now a direct, one hour and 15 minute flight. It's becoming so easy, Cabañas said, that people can plan on breakfast here and lunch in Havana.
"You can now honeymoon in Havana, as many people have done in Tampa and St. Pete," Cabañas joked before his speech.
Cabañas spent part of his weekend exploring many of Tampa Bay's gems, including a reception Saturday with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman at the Salvador Dalí Museum and a visit to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's Marine Science College. The day before, he explored Ybor City. He couldn't help but draw comparisons between Tampa Bay and his country.
"They are pretty similar," he said before his speech Saturday. "They know each other. We're exchanging values with them and building new links among people."
The ease of travel and cultural exchange is increasing, but the tensions and disagreements between the two countries have not been erased.
Cabañas spoke to the complicated relationship between the two countries, trying to correct some misconceptions. The Cuban Revolution was not made to fight or oppose anything in the United States, Cabañas said. Instead, it aimed to get rid of a potential dictatorship.
"We never had plans to invade you, never," Cabañas joked to a room full of laughter. "We have some ideas how to annex Florida back, though."
Even with continued debate over leadership, human rights and politics, Cabañas said it is reassuring to see a dialogue develop between the two nations.
"We're trying to put ideologies aside and simply to decide which are the priorities," Cabañas said. "This is a process we haven't finished yet, but at least we have covered several of those priorities."
It's a chance the country has never had before, he said, until former President Barack Obama signed a presidential directive re-establishing ties in 2014. And it's one, Cabañas said he expects to continue under President Donald Trump.
"Every four years, it takes awhile for the new administration to reset and define the priorities," Cabañas said. "But we keep working, basically, within the same routine."
Still, Cuba has yet to establish a consulate in the United States. He said it's something that has not been discussed yet. He told a Tampa Bay Times reporter before the speech that first there needs to be trust that the process will continue.
"We have to prove to ourselves that the bilateral ties are there to remain," he said.
Cabañas again dodged the question from an audience member after the speech. But some of the criteria he listed certainly seemed to fit Tampa Bay.
"It's not a secret that we have to have an office close to our major communities, and it's not a secret that we have our own preferences that way," Cabañas said. "Of course, we will be looking to places where local authorities consider it good news to have a Cuban office there."