In spite of fractured US-Cuba relations, Tampa Bay continues to build ties with island

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The Sunshine Skyway Bridge that crosses the entrance to Tampa Bay, home to the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa.

A little over a year ago, under a national umbrella of rapprochement, Tampa Bay civic and business leaders were working tirelessly to reestablish centuries-old business and cultural ties with Cuba. Since then U.S.-Cuba relations have soured under the Trump administration, but Tampa’s leaders are still working to secure – and even build upon – the progress they made.

Over the past two years, Tampa International Airport began offering daily commercial Cuba-bound flights and the Port of Tampa started sending cruise ships to the island. The University of Tampa and Stetson University’s College of Law sent students down. St. Petersburg’s Salvador Dalí Museum hosted a leccture by Ana Cristina Perera, director of the Museo National de Bellas Artes, and The Dali Museum’s director, Hank Hine, joined a 2015 delegation to Cuba with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. Local marine scientists stepped up research and collaboration with their Cuban counterparts, and St. Petersburg even proposed having a Cuban consulate. Looking ahead, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts secured a deal to host the Ballet Nacional de Cuba for a one-night-only performance of Giselle.

With new restrictions put in place by the administration in November, the coming year will put Tampa Bay’s Cuba commitment to the test.

Yes, under the new rules, Cuba-bound flights and cruises can still leave Tampa Bay, and non-Cuban U.S. citizens are still allowed to visit the island if they travel in tour groups or are involved in activities such as research or humanitarian support. But the recent restrictions will have serious impacts. For example, the new regulations specify that U.S. citizens and companies cannot engage in transactions with any Cuban entity run by the country’s military. Among those entities is Cuba’s recently refurbished Port of Mariel, which the Port of Tampa had plans to work with as a partner.

The proposal to open a Cuban consulate in St. Pete is on hold in the wake of the State Department expelling 15 officials from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, a response to the unexplained “attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana. The State Department also issued a travel warning and withdrew most of its Havana embassy staff in the lead-up to the diplomatic expulsion. The reduced embassy staff in Havana suspended visa processing for Cubans to travel to the U.S.

In spite of these setbacks, the city commissions of both Tampa and St. Petersburg recently decided not to turn their back on Cuba. Rather than cancel an official October delegation to the island, they voted to go anyway, provided that participants paid their way with private funds.

“We have a lot of work at stake and progress that we have made in shared future interests in topics like healthcare research, marine science, climate change, and sea level rise, so it’s important that we continue to cooperate and work together,” said St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Darden Rice.

“Mainly it was to keep the relationship that Tampa’s had – the history – just to let them know we’re interested. We have a port that can handle whatever comes through them. If and when that day comes, we’re ready,” said Tampa City Council Chairwoman Yvonne Yolie Capín, noting that the mission was the first official Tampa City Council trip to Cuba since 1960.

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Expanding sea links: Travelers from Tampa can now take multiple cruises to Cuba.

Tampa to Cuba Travel

Tampa Bay has handled a large number of trips to Cuba for several years already. In 2011, Tampa International Airport began offering weekly direct charter flights to Cuba. Those weekly charters soon turned into daily service. Then in 2016, Southwest Airlines started flying direct from Tampa to Havana, Santa Clara and Varadero, though it recently stopped serving the latter two destinations.

Meanwhile cruise lines, which started leaving the Port of Tampa for Cuba in the spring of 2017, continue to add new voyages.  “Cruise business to Cuba only continues to grow at Port Tampa Bay. Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line call from Port Tampa Bay,” said Port of Tampa Director of Public Relations Samara Sodos. “Carnival Cruise Line just added five additional Havana cruises to their itinerary,” voyages that will come through the company’s Holland America Line brand.

It’s difficult to tell exactly how many jobs have already been added thanks to Tampa-Cuba travel, but Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa Bay’s La Gaceta newspaper and a participant in the October delegation, says thousands of Tampa Bay residents have benefitted.

“It’s a huge deal,” he said. Travelers who transit through Tampa Bay not only spend money at the port and airport but also at area hotels, restaurants, museums, and shops on their way to and from Cuba. He estimated the region could have added as many as 6,000 new jobs had the Trump administration not rolled back the Obama-era opening.

“I don’t know one thing the federal government could add that would overnight create that kind of work in Tampa,” he said.

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Capturing Cuba-Bound Travelers

St. Petersburg business leaders want to show Cuba-bound travelers their city’s charms. Thanks to its quaint historic neighborhoods, picturesque waterfront, laid back lifestyle, and reasonable cost of living, the once sleepy city is having an economic and cultural renaissance, and community leaders believe engaging Cuba would make it even more compelling.

“Any added visitor growth through Tampa airport or through the ports is going to flow towards St. Pete,” said Olga Bof, president of the small business association Keep St. Pete Local. “It’s to our benefit to help grow these links, to help grow these relationships.”

In April, Bof, a Cuban-American who was born on the island and immigrated to Miami as an infant, rallied small business support for the consulate by organizing a “Cuban Pete” night. The event included a pig roast at the Cuban-inspired Bodega restaurant on St. Pete’s recently renovated Central Avenue. The festivities then moved on to a paella party at the Cuban restaurant Pipo’s, and partygoers ended the evening with spirits from the local Flying Boat Brewing Co. and Kozuba & Sons Distillery.

Bof says small businesses tend to employ more people than large companies, and in St. Pete, the majority of businesses are locally owned. When consular restrictions ease up, she would like to encourage St. Petersburg business owners to network with Cuban entrepreneurs.

“We’re a think-local but act-global organization,” she said, noting how impressed she’s been with the expansion of farm-to-table culture in both Havana and St. Pete. For now, she just wants visitors to know that dining and shopping in small St. Pete establishments will help them feel even more connected to the quaint, down-home life they discover on trips to Cuba.

“It doesn’t make for a smaller life. It makes for a richer life,” she said, as she sipped a traditional Cuban coffee at Bodega.

That’s something even conservative businesspeople such as Stephen Reyes, a Cuban-American accountant and participant on the October city councils delegation, agree with.

Reyes says the people of Cuba “will drive their own change,” not by an outside force but by supporting their already expanding entrepreneurial endeavors. He also said the delegation allowed him to see how foreign travel has helped diversify Cuba’s small-business economy with everything from wedding pastries to cell phone repair services.

“These are all spillovers of the economic prosperity from the tourism boom,” he said.

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Scientific Cooperation in the Gulf Stream

Sea turtles, sharks, and other creatures pay no attention to the geopolitical climate as they travel between the U.S. and Cuba. But their survival depends on political decisions in both countries, as bilateral scientific exchanges continue to be important.

Tampa’s Florida Aquarium is working on several scientific initiatives with Cuban marine biologists. Earlier this year, Florida Aquarium scientists traveled to Cuba’s western coast to assist Cuban scientists with the construction of a coral reef nursery. The Tampa team provided the structures – 15-foot plastic pipes that were anchored into the sea floor – and helped install them. Cuban scientists hope to bring some of the resulting coral trees to the Florida Aquarium for an exhibit in 2019.

Margo McKnight, vice president of biological operations at the Florida Aquarium, says she’s concerned about the new regulations but confident her team will continue to collaborate with Cuba, provided it stays current on all rules and regulations. She’s grateful the Obama administration previously raised the profile of joint conservation projects.

“We’re just trying to give ourselves as much time as possible to have all of our T’s crossed and our I’s dotted to make sure that we do great work and it’s not hindered by the new changes,” she said. “Anecdotally it seems like people are interested and excited about our work in Cuba. People love to hear the stories and there’s people who want to go and are interested in helping us in the field.”

Interested parties may soon have that chance. The aquarium is helping Cuba set up a sea turtle research center in the same area it built the nursery. In 2018, it plans to offer “citizen scientist” educational trips in which ordinary U.S. citizens can legally travel to Cuba to study sea turtle hatching and migration between the two countries.

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Bolstering Tampa Bay’s Medical Field

The October delegation didn’t visit Cuba to pen any business contracts, only to discuss ideas for the future. But Cuban officials were keen on discussing potential pharmaceutical deals with the United States, especially for products such as CIMAvax, Cuba’s vaunted lung cancer vaccine.

Tal Land, managing director at Talbot & Associates Healthcare Consulting in Tampa, was on the October delegation. He says large U.S. pharmaceutical companies are certainly interested, but negotiations are tentative – something their Cuban counterparts understand. “There was a real desire for normalization, but also a realistic attitude that it may be a while,” he said.

Meanwhile in Tampa, Cuba has already provided medical knowledge to the healthcare community. U.S. doctor-in-training Graham Sowa recently graduated from Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) and moved to Tampa to work in the Brandon Regional Hospital system.

Thanks to a joint U.S.-Cuba medical education agreement, he did the entire seven-year program free of charge, provided he return to the U.S. and dedicate part of his two-year residency to serving underserved communities. As part of his residency, he works at the Brandon Outreach Clinic which offers free or low-cost care to some of the area’s poorest residents. And while many doctors specialize to increase their potential earnings in order to pay back medical school loans, Sowa says he’s in a good position to work as a general practitioner.

Mayor Rick Kriseman says he’s glad to hear about the program, especially with the cost of healthcare skyrocketing.

“He can teach our folks something about what he learned – how to look at things differently and find solutions they might not otherwise have thought of,” Kriseman said.

Bringing Cuba to Tampa Bay

In the current diplomatic scenario, it’s far easier to get Americans to Cuba than it is to get Cubans to America. The Cuban diplomat expulsions have slowed, but not halted, visa processing for U.S. visitors. On the other side of the Straits of Florida, however, the U.S. Embassy in Havana has stopped processing visas for Cubans, advising them instead to apply at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. That’s a tall order for Cubans who already have to pay up to $160 in non-refundable visa fees, regardless of whether their application is accepted.

This could mean that some Cuban artists hoping to travel to Tampa or St. Petersburg will have to wait – though The Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa recently managed to wrangle visas for one of Cuba’s most important performance troupes: The Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which is still under the direction of legendary Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso.

The May 23 performance will be one of just five U.S. engagements for their 2018 Giselle tour. The ballet troupe will also perform at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and Chicago’s Auditorium Theater. Calling the event a “cultural victory” for Tampa Bay’s performing arts aficionados, Straz Center President and CEO Judith Lisi said the visit took three years of detailed coordinating. She credited the center’s namesake, David A. Straz, for pulling it all together.

“I think it’s really inspirational to see what’s happening in the arts in Cuba,” Lisi told Cuba Trade. “We have so many Cubans here who still have family members there. They might be saddened by the politics but they still love the people and they’re proud of the people.”

Straz, a longtime supporter of Tampa’s Cuba engagement effort, was also a participant on the October city commission delegation. “As someone who is devoted to the arts and supports artistic excellence for Tampa – and as someone fond of Cuban culture – facilitating the performance of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba is a dream come true,” he told the Straz Center.

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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman holds a photo of La Giraldilla, a historic piece of Havana architecture.

Keeping the Faith

The vision for deeper engagement with Cuba inspired Vicente Amor, a former pastor in Cuba, to immigrate to Tampa to work in the travel industry. Today he is the vice president of ASC Travel, and spends much of his time coordinating high-profile delegations to Cuba, including the one from Tampa Bay in October. “Tampa has extraordinary potential and that makes me proud to be there,” he said.

Amor says the introduction of commercial flights and cruises to Cuba, combined with the openings of the past administration, has emboldened Tampa Bay residents – many of them Cuban – to set aside fears of backlash from Cuban hardliners in Miami. Going a step further, he believes the region could be instrumental in changing Florida’s political attitude toward Cuba.

Miami’s Cuban exile community “was very influential 40 or 50 years ago,” Amor said. “Now American society and American politicians understand that their force no longer amounts to much. I believe Tampa has the potential to raise a voice that says, ‘We’ll engage with Cuba in a civilized manner with the country that Cuba is, not with the country we would like it to be,’” said Amor.

Back at St. Petersburg City Hall, Mayor Kriseman hopes more Tampa Bay residents will come to that same conclusion, and he thinks a flight or a cruise to the island will help them.

“Go because you want to experience the culture and the arts. Go because you want to experience the people and the community and the richness of the cities,” he said. “I think the more we travel there and build relationships, the more pressure gets put on both governments to find ways of working together, and that’s ultimately what we want to see happen.”

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