Conference on possible Tampa-Cuba business relationships

06/29/09 Mitch E. Perry
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On Saturday, approximately 130 people packed into the historic Italian Club in Ybor City to hear a day-long discussion on improving Tampa’s trade and travel relations with Cuba.

Three Tampa City Council members, all possible Mayoral candidates in 2011, were at the event. Three members of Congress working on legislation to lift the travel ban to the communist island called in.

The event was put together by Al Fox, a 2006 Congressional candidate from Tampa, who runs the anti-embargo group Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

Fox said there will soon be more activity among Tampa officials to try to foster business relations with the Cuban government.

Massachusetts Democratic Representative William Delahunt was scheduled to appear at the event, but Friday night’s vote on climate change legislation forced him to speak to those assembled via telephone.

Delahunt is sponsoring HR 874, the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act”, which has over 150 House co-sponsors. The bill would end the current ban travel by Americans to Cuba.

Among the speakers at the forum was Tony Martinez, an international trade consultant who has served as a foreign policy advisor to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Martinez briefly described a recent poll conducted by Miami based pollster Bendixen & Associates that reported a majority of Cubans and Americans favor ending the 50-year-old trade embargo imposed by the U.S. government.

When asked why the embargo continues, Martinez said it was because of political contributions to members of Congress.

Many believe that Tampa has fallen behind other cities in establishing trade relationships with the Cuban Government. Patrick Mantiega, the publisher of the Ybor City newspaper La Gaceta says that the Tampa Port Authority is the only delegation to go to Cuba.

Mantiega says doing business with Cuba is not like doing business with any other country.

Earlier this year, President Obama reversed Bush administration policies on travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban Americans. That pleased advocates for greater relations between the two countries, but some critics remain unsatisfied that Obama hasn’t done more.

Wayne Smith is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy, and from 1979-82 was Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. He said he was surprised how slow the administration has moved on a number of foreign policy fronts.

Three members of the Tampa City Council were at the event. Commission Chair Thomas Scott led the invocation. Councilmember Linda Saul-Sena visited Cuba herself in 2004, and is widely expected to run for Mayor of Tampa in 2011. City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern will be going on a 4 day trip to Cuba next month. She says she’s never been there, and wants to meet the people and government officials to let them know Tampa wants to do business with them. Mulhern has said she is considering a run for Mayor in 2011.

In Florida, of course, having a day-long forum on improving relations with Cuba while a Castro rules the country is going to court controversy. A handful of protestors stood outside the Italian club as people entered the building Saturday morning.

One was Orlando Rodriguez, the president of the Cuban Historical and Cultural Center. He reacted viscerally when asked about the fact that the U.S. government does business with other communist regimes with dubious human rights records, such as China.

For more information on Al Fox’s group, you can go to his website,

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