Ruth: Tampa mayor courts China, stiff-arms Cuba

Published Sept. 25, 2016

What might we call this historic foreign policy moment? Buckhorn Goes to China?

Okay, so it doesn't quite have the Nixonian panache to it.

But there was Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn spending last week cavorting across China on a goodwill/economic development trip, raising mai tai umbrellas in the spirit of international cooperation with government and health science officials to further stronger bonds between the city and Beijing. Oh, the Camelot of it all.

It is certainly routine for big city mayors like Buckhorn to take the occasional trip abroad to drum up closer business relationships. Bon voyage. Have a nice time.

Buckhorn was joined on the trip by officials from USF Health and Sister Cities International. The focus of the junket was to forge a relationship between USF Health and the city of Lanzhou, a leading medical hub in China. And, given Buckhorn's support for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, it would surprise no one if trade issues were also part of hizzoner's agenda.

Fair enough.

But Buckhorn also has an optics dilemma.

With the thawing of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, the mayor has gone full-throttle Cold Warrior on everyone, disparaging a renewed relationship with our neighbor 90 miles away.

Indeed, Buckhorn has been less than enthusiastic about a possible Cuban diplomatic mission being located in Tampa, as long as the despotic Castro brothers are still drawing breaths.

There is no question Fidel and Raul Castro have presided over a brutal, oppressive communist regime for nearly 60 years. Dissent has been violently crushed. The Cuban government has given support to many other dictators around the world. These are not nice guys.

But you could argue that compared with the Chinese, Fidel and Raul are the Hardy Boys.

The Chinese have jailed dissidents, suppressed free speech, consigned untold numbers of people to re-education camps, violated international law by building a series of islands off its coast, harassed U.S. Navy ships and aircraft operating in international waters and air space, hacked into American government and private sector computer systems, manipulated international currency markets, stolen intellectual property and killed critics of the regime.

And let us not forget Tiananmen Square.

Yet Buckhorn, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times' William March, tut-tutted the obvious hypocrisy by noting China's close economic ties to the United States, while Cuba remains a virtual roadside fruit stand when it comes to its economic value to this country.

That's true. But that still doesn't excuse the mayor from being selectively self-righteous.

If you are going to get all indignantly huffy over a political prisoner sitting in a Cuban prison, you owe the same level of outrage toward a Chinese government victim of political oppression. Human rights are human rights regardless of the size of the despot's checkbook.

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The United States in general and Tampa in particular benefit economically from strong ties to China. That's the way the world works. Sometimes you have to do business with some not-so-very-pleasant people.

But for Buckhorn to go all Mother Teresa when it comes to Cuba, while embracing his inner Koch Brother with respect to China, is disingenuous at best.

When it comes to giving the stinkeye to Cuba while playing footsie with the Chinese commies, Buckhorn can't have it both ways, no matter how grand a great wall of myopia the mayor tries to build.