The Tampa-Cuba Connection

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Tampa cigar workers at the turn of the century, listening to their “lector” reading from newspapers and books.

As U.S. regions jockey for business and other links with Cuba, the Tampa Bay region has one big advantage on its side: history. No place in the United States shares as long and rich a historical connection to the island as Tampa Bay.

The western Florida region is where, nearly 500 years ago, the first Spanish explorer from Cuba came ashore to check out North America. It’s where cigarmakers from Cuba started setting up factories in the 1880s, attracting Cuban workers and earning Tampa the nickname “Cigar Capital of the World.”

It’s where Cuban independence leader José Martí repeatedly visited in the 1890s seeking funds and support to liberate his homeland from Spain. And it’s where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders cavalry kept their headquarters before heading off to Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Many in Tampa Bay want to build on that legacy now that the United States and Cuba have restored diplomatic ties after a 54-year break. With the U.S. embargo limiting most business with the island, they’re forging wide-ranging links, from marine science to the arts and sports. Indeed, it was a Tampa Bay Rays game against Cuba’s national baseball team that Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro watched in Havana last spring during the first visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years.

Tampa Bay has much to offer Cuba. The four-county region has the second-highest economic output of any metro area in Florida, trailing only after Greater Miami. Much of its activity comes from Hillsborough County, home to the city of Tampa and about half of the region’s three million residents.

In addition, Tampa hosts Florida’s second largest Cuban-American community, about 100,000 people. It’s older than Miami’s one million-strong group, with many residents descended from cigarworkers who arrived a century ago. Tampa’s Cubans tend to be more open to engagement than Miami’s, with ideologues considered less of an obstacle to building ties with the nearby island.

Trolleys of the Teco Line Streetcar System in historic Ybor City. The National Historic Landmark District was developed by Vicente Martinez-Ybor and fellow cigarmakers from Cuba.

“Miami is Cuba. Here, we’re Tampa,” joked Roberto Galban, 32, serving a Cuban-style coffee at a cigar shop in Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood. He left Cuba 20 years ago and grew up in Tampa Bay, learning English and ignoring Cuban politics. “When I got here, no one really spoke Spanish.”

Largely because of its Cuban-American community, Tampa was among the first U.S. cities outside Miami to get charter flights to Cuba. Charters from Tampa International Airport began in 2011, and when U.S. airlines were allowed scheduled service last year, Southwest Airlines began flying Tampa-Havana daily in December. Havana Air also started a new route to Cuba from Tampa last year.

“Scheduled service is a big deal, because it’s cheaper, easier to buy tickets, and easier to plan around than charters,” said airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps. “We’re hoping Southwest’s service will be the start of a successful route that can grow over time.”

For now, with U.S. tourism to Cuba banned under the embargo, Tampa-Cuba air traffic remains small, with some 22,000 passengers in 2012 rising to 34,000-plus in the first 10 months of 2016. But its potential is big. Cuba business already brings more than $1 million in annual revenue to the airport, said Nipps.

CLICK THE PHOTO TO READ MORE: How scientists from Tampa and Cuba are working together to save the reefs

Port Tampa Bay also sees opportunity in travel. The port’s first cruises to Cuba in more than half a century are set to launch this spring. Royal Caribbean will begin sailing to Havana in April with its 1,840-passenger Empress of the Seas vessel. The Empress is offering four-, five- and six-night trips that also include stops in Key West or on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, providing Americans a chance to learn about Cuba and share with its residents in people-to-people exchanges. Carnival also begins sailing out of Tampa starting in June.

The Tampa seaport, Florida’s largest by acreage, already handles cargo bound for Cuba under waivers to the embargo that allow sales of U.S. agricultural products. Volume is still relatively small, however. In the past five years, the seaport has sent about 70,000 tons of freight to Cuba, mostly fertilizer—not even 1 percent of its total cargo volume, said Raul Alfonso, the port’s Cuba-born chief commercial officer who grew up in South Florida.

“In a free-trade, post-embargo scenario, Tampa is Cuba- ready,” said Alfonso, touting the port as Florida’s closest in nautical miles to the Cuban mega-port of Mariel (17-hours away in transit time). He sees potential to export to Cuba everything from fresh foods to cement—and to import goods transshipped through Mariel and destined for Central Florida’s fast-growing Interstate 4 corridor region.

While South Florida ports focus more on containerized cargo and likely will lure more of that Cuban business, “no one single port is going to do it all,” Alfonso told Cuba Trade. “We’re all trying to prepare for post-embargo Cuba.” In tourism, Tampa sees opportunity now in attracting visitors before and after their Cuba trips, “building on the historic and cultural ties between Cuba and Tampa,” said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, the destination marketer for Hillsborough County. Tampa Bay has been breaking tourism records for the past four years. In 2016, it hosted almost 22 million overnight visitors, nearly 19 million airport passengers, and 814,000 cruise passengers, said Corrada, also a Cuban-American.

As flights and cruises to Cuba expand, Tampa can lure more visitors to its Cuba-related locales—especially Ybor City, the area developed by Vicente Martinez-Ybor and fellow cigarmakers from Cuba. Today the neighborhood is designated a National Historic Landmark District, featuring century-old brick factories and shops, restored wooden worker homes, and a captivating local history museum.

CLICK THE PHOTO TO READ MORE: In Ybor City, visitors can explore a park honoring Cuban independence leader José Martí.

In Ybor City, travelers can visit Cuba without a passport. That’s because the park honoring Cuban independence leader José Martí has been deeded to Cuba since the 1950s. It is the rarest of places: property in the United States owned by a foreign government that does not have an embassy or consulate on it. The park sits on land where Martí often stayed in the 1890s at the home of his friends, the Pedrosos.

Short-term, some Tampa entrepreneurs have specific business plans for Cuba, including agro-businessman Mike Mauricio. The grandson of Cubans who came to work in Tampa’s cigar industry a century ago, Mauricio began visiting Cuba in the early 1990s. After Washington allowed food sales to the island in 2000, his Florida Produce company was among the first U.S. businesses authorized to sell there, exporting items from raisins to fresh pears and dehydrated coconut.

Now, Mauricio wants to open a food distribution center in Cuba, either in the Havana area or at the Port of Mariel. He envisions a warehouse spanning at least 50,000 square feet that would store dry goods and refrigerated foods from the United States and beyond. The warehouse could be a joint-venture with the Cuban government. He’s awaiting word from Cuban authorities on the proposal.

“I’ve never agreed with the U.S. embargo, because it’s devastated the Cuban people,” said Mauricio, who dreams of a time when Tampa will be a key trading partner with the land of his ancestors, as it had been before Cuba’s 1959 Revolution and before Washington’s 1960s embargo.

Of course, open trade with Cuba could bring competition for Tampa, especially for its cigarmakers. But Odelma Matos, a master cigar-roller who left Cuba in 2010 and now owns the small Ybor City shop La Faraona Cigars or Pharaoh Cigars, is not worried.

“When Cuban cigars become available, there’ll be demand. It’s something you weren’t able to get, so you’ll want it,” said Matos from her popular storefront. “If I could sell cigars from Cuba, I would.”

Downtown Tampa at night.

Ready to Compete

Many Ybor City leaders figure the cigar market is big enough for Tampa’s limited production to thrive alongside new imports from the island. “Initially, it might hurt—but not that bad or for that long,” said Larry Wilder, former chairman of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, who helped organize a Chamber trip to Cuba in 2015. “The novelty will wear off fast, because people will realize, ‘Hey, they have good cigars, but we have good cigars as well.”

Tampa Bay also expects to compete with other U.S. areas for a future Cuban consulate, and St. Petersburg hopes to host that office. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman visited Cuba in August 2015 to build relations and returned there in March 2016 to attend the game by the Rays, who hail from St. Pete. He recently welcomed a Cuban cultural delegation and a Cuban art exhibit to his Pinellas County city, which is known for its Salvador Dalí museum and vibrant art scene.

Part of Kriseman’s pitch for a Cuban consulate is that the first Spaniard to explore North America from Cuba, Panfilo de Narvaez, landed in what is now St. Pete nearly five centuries ago in 1528. Kriseman also sees potential to work with Cuba’s highly educated workforce in areas including the life sciences, an economic driver in St. Pete and one of the island’s most promising industries. “We share a lot in common––whether it’s arts and culture, medicine, or the fact that we’re both coastal communities and as such, have to deal with climate change, sea-level rise and the risk of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Kriseman. For now, he hopes St. Pete can help restore a Martin Luther King monument in Havana.

CLICK THE PHOTO TO READ MORE: Tampa influenced the version of the “cubano” sandwich that is popular across the United States

Art is also forging Cuba links at the downtown Tampa Museum of Art, housed in a new $33 million, award-winning building since 2010. The riverfront museum this winter season hosted its first exhibit of contemporary Cuban art, displaying some 40 works by two dozen artists. It dedicated its annual gala held last November to a Havana-Tampa theme for the first time.

The educational community has also been forging links with Cuba. The University of Tampa was selected as one of 12 U.S. schools to participate in the 2015 International Academic Partnership Program with Cuba, and now offers several Education Abroad programs in Havana. Stetson University’s College of Law offers a Spring Break study abroad program in Cuba.

Driving his gleaming 1929 Model A Ford through Ybor City on a history tour, professor Wallace Reyes takes heart in the renewed ties with Cuba. He notes Tampa even came up in talks restoring U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties. That’s because Cuba owed money for maintenance of the Martí park during the Cold War years. Havana is now making payments to maintain its land in the Tampa area once dubbed Cuba Town—yet another symbol of Greater Tampa’s deep ties with the island nation.

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