Some in Tampa want to lift Cuba trade embargo

08/21/12 Janelle Irwin
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A lot of people in Florida are coming around to the idea of reducing trade and travel restrictions with Cuba. People can now catch a direct flight from Tampa to Havana, but there’s still a lot of red tape and most trade is still off limits. On Tuesday, a panel of political and business professionals discussed reasons why it’s time to lift the longstanding trade embargo. Al Fox, president of the Alliance for responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, said it’s time for the U.S. to bury the hatchet.

“The United States continues to embargo Cuba for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Fidel Castro, communism and human rights violation. It has everything to do with vengeance, hatred and pride.”

Member of Congress Kathy Castor said it’s easy for some people to react like that.

“The Cuban government is oppressive, repressive. They do not share our values when it comes to democracy and the ability to speak out – the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion.”

But she added, there are more and more people who would rather reach out to Cuban residents who fall victim to their government’s human rights violations. She told a story about a dissident who was arrested and jailed by the Cuban government for speaking out against the country. But when he returned to U.S. soil, Castor said he wasn’t looking for vengeance.

“It could have gone either way. Sometimes I hear people say, ‘No, I am so angry in what happened in Cuba, we should not interact with them at all and we should continue this isolationist policy and do everything we can just like we’ve been doing with the embargo and travel restrictions to punish the Cuban government and the Cuban people as a bi-product’. But I was surprised. I asked him what should we be doing and he said more engagement.”

And Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, agreed that the best way to ease the political hostility between the U.S. and Cuban governments is to just start talking.

“Cuba is our closest neighbor and the League of Women Voters has long held a belief that open communications and understanding is where relationships begin to improve.”

Even though many states have found ways to allow citizens to travel to Cuba, it’s expensive and the bureaucratic process is difficult to navigate. Member of Congress Kathy Castor said Americans can travel freely to just about anywhere else.

“Except when it comes to Cuba. Why does the United States of America, the bright point for democracy and human rights all across the world, limit out ability to travel anywhere in the world. We’re smart. We can read the dangerous conditions in Syria and Iran and Afghanistan, but you know what, you can travel there. I wouldn’t recommend it right now, but as Americans we enjoy the freedom to travel and the freedom to make our own individual decisions except, our government says, when it comes to Cuba. And I don’t think that’s right.”

And the inability for many native Cubans to travel back home is something Tampa City Council chair Charlie Miranda sees as the biggest human rights violation of all.

“Just stop and think of yourselves; if your family – your loved ones, your grandmother, your grandfather, your aunt, your uncle, your siblings – were in another country that you couldn’t go see for political reasons or other reasons. What would happen then? How would you feel? Well, that’s how they feel. I always say, for every action there’s a reaction; for every thought there’s an idea that works or doesn’t work. It’s about people, it’s not about government.”

There are also many who argue that lifting the trade embargo with Cuba would benefit the economy. States like Illinois have lobbied to allow at least some trade with the country. Adam Nielsen is the director of national legislation and policy development for that Illinois’ Farm Bureau. But he and colleagues traveled to Cuba recently and saw more than just an economic opportunity.

“I think we came away with a strong feeling of the humanitarian need to help that country which is right in our backyard feed itself – 80% of the food is imported. Right now a lot of that food is coming from all corners of the globe. Rice from Vietnam takes almost a month for it to get there. It would take 3-days if they were by Arkansas and Texas rice.”

He said there is still a strong financial incentive to lifting – or at least easing the trade embargo.

“Other countries are cleaning our clock and it is a $2 billion market…unfortunately, again, the way the law is written and the regulations are written, we are not able to take full advantage of that market.”

The first flight to Cuba from Tampa in fifty years took off from Tampa International Airport last year. Since then, groups of students, elected officials and Cuban trade advocates have traveled there – many with hopes that the new flights will eventually lead to the trade embargo being lifted.

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Open up to Cuba. 53 years is enough.