U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's trip to Cuba solidifies her desire for trade embargo to be lifted

04/08/13 Janelle Irwin
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U.S. Representative Kathy Castor returned from her first visit to Cuba this weekend with a new-found confidence in the island nation’s shift toward human rights. The Tampa Bay area Democrat spent three days in Cuba with a packed itinerary that left her convinced lifting the long-standing trade embargo is the right thing to do.

“They are still a hardcore communist nation, but they are embarking on market reforms in their economy that deserve encouragement.”

Castor returned from her trip a day early this Saturday. She bragged to reporters during a press conference Monday about how easy it was to catch a flight from Tampa to Havana and how beautiful the flight was, noting that as soon as Cuba was out of sight, Florida was just ahead.

“Cuba is the only country in the world that American citizens are restrained from traveling to. Americans can travel to North Korea. With warnings they can travel to Syria and Iran and yet a little more than an hour away from the Tampa International Airport, all of our neighbors cannot visit and travel.”

"Don’t be fooled, this is not a place for American tourists to go lay on the beach right now.”

Castor said free travel between the U.S. and Cuba is a long term goal though.

“After 50 years of embargo and isolation that has proven it hasn’t worked in bringing about a lot of change, it’s time to try something new and refresh our relationship.”

Packed into her itinerary for the late-week trip were visits with the ministry of tourism, local business owners and government officials. One of her top concerns is oil drilling off the coast of Cuba.

“I was very pleasantly surprised that they have been in productive, multilateral talks with the United States, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Mexico to the point where they have adopted many of the safety recommendations in America’s oil spill report.”

But Castor said there are still some hazards resulting from the 50-year trade blockade.

"They are prevented from importing or using any of the best equipment that is available. They are prevented, even, from importing any type of equipment that has American-made components.”

Castor plans to take the findings of her visit and recommendations to Washington. She said she’s already spoken with Secretary of State John Kerry who seems willing to discuss the issue.

“Here’s the problem with that. I talked to Secretary Kerry before he was confirmed as Secretary of State and he’s very interested in change, but think of the challenges all across the world right now. The problem is elevating this issue among all those challenges – Syria, Egypt, Israel, Iran, troops getting home from Afghanistan. When you look at all that and where Secretary Kerry is spending a lot of his time, it’s just difficult to elevate the Cuba issue on that whole agenda, but we’re going to try.”

Castor points to a shift in Cuba’s leadership from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul as evidence that Cuba is on the path toward better conditions for residents.

"Raul, I learned in my discussions, is a much more practical ruler. He has instituted many of these economic reforms. As a former county commissioner, I talked to many of the folks there to say, ‘ok, does the centralized government provide people on the local level the ability to make decisions on garbage pick-up, infrastructure, the repair of Old Havana?’ And they’re starting this process.”

The member of Congress also wants the U.S. to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list. She said the reason Cuba is on the list in the first place is the country formerly supported FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia.

“Well, right now Cuba is hosting the peace talks between the government of Columbia and the FARC so that’s not a very good rationale. Do you know North Korea is not on that list? So, there’s this great irrationality when it comes to that.”

Up until recent weeks Castor has been on the fence when it comes to lifting the trade embargo with Cuba. She said it was meetings with Cuban constituents who wanted to be able to visit relatives that prompted her to change her mind. She added she expects there to be criticism among colleagues for her decision to take a stance.

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