St. Pete mayor reacts to Trump’s Cuba travel restrictions, diverted cruise

Cuban flag and Che mural in Havana. Photo by Seán Kinane (May 2017).

This month the Trump administration took away more freedoms from Americans to travel to Cuba, including banning all cruise travel.

WMNF spoke with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who was on a cruise to Cuba when the policy was announced and was diverted away from the communist island.

“I was on a cruise ship with my family and extended family, actually. We had taken this cruise and there was 15 family and friends that had gone together to celebrate my mother-in-law and father-in-law’s 75th birthday. The cruise was supposed to leave Port Canaveral, cruise overnight to Key West, spend the day in Key West, leave Key West and head to Havana.

“The morning that we had arrived in Key West, I had received an email message from my policy chief, attaching a CNN article that indicated that President Trump had changed the policy, effective June 5th. But it seemed to indicate there was going to be a grandfathering of those who had already made travel plans: they were going to be allowed to travel.

“Ironically we knew that we were going to be arriving in Cuba on June 5th. We kind of were like, ‘OK well, looks like maybe we’re going to be the last ones to go by cruise there.’

“So we spent the day in Key West, came back on the boat, we had dinner reservations that night, and there was a beautiful sunset. So my wife and I walked to the back of the ship to see the sunset — along with a lot of other passengers who were back there.

“And we were about a half an hour, maybe, out of port from Key West, headed to Havana, when an announcement came over the intercom that said there was a change in the federal government’s policy toward Cuba, and the ship was going to have to reroute, and was not going to be going to Havana but instead was going to Nassau in the Bahamas.”

SK: “So how did that make you feel?”

“Well, it was very frustrating. I felt really bad for my family and for everyone else on the ship. I’m fortunate — I’ve been to Cuba three times. But most of my family — with the exception of my wife and kids, ’cause they went with me on our 2nd visit when the Rays were playing down there — the rest of the family had never been to Cuba. They were really excited about going. I think that was the reason my mother-in-law and father-in-law chose that trip, ’cause we offered them a number of different trips that we were going to take them on to celebrate and they said, ‘We’ll do the cruise to Cuba.’

“So we were all very frustrated. There was people that were on the boat who were going to see family in Cuba. And now they weren’t going to get to see their family.

“So you had about 2,000 people on this ship — I think the majority of whom were on this ship specifically because it was going to Cuba — who were incredibly disappointed now that we weren’t going to be able to go.”

SK: “Besides your personal experience, what do you think this policy means for Americans who want to travel to Cuba? And also, what do you think it means for Cubans who kind of have relied on American tourism dollars?”

“I haven’t been shy about my comments about this — I think it’s a terrible policy. I think there’s a lot of Americans who wanted to go down there, who had already spent money, or who were planning on spending money, and now are not going to be able to go down there. And I think it doesn’t hurt the Cuban government — it hurts the Cuban people.

“And I’ll use myself as an example of that: I had planned out an itinerary for our entire time in Cuba. And that itinerary included going to a restaurant for lunch and for dinner, that were privately owned — they’re called ‘paladares‘ — that means they’re not government restaurants, they’re privately owned restaurants.

“We were going to go to an artisan market where artists display their wares and they’re all for sale. Well that money goes directly to the artist, not to the government. And so that’s money that otherwise would have gone into their hands that is no longer going into their hands.

“And if you take me as one example and you multiply that by the 800,000 Americans — roughly, I think they said, somewhere around that number — that have visited, that’s a lot of money that would have otherwise gone into the hands of the people, that now is not going to.

“To go back to a policy that was in place for more than 50 years that didn’t have the impact that everybody said that they wanted it to have, what’s the point of that? What do we gain by doing that? And if our concern is about their supporting Venezuela, or human rights, then why aren’t we holding other countries who support Venezuela or who also have human rights issues, why aren’t we treating them the same? I think there’s a level of hypocrisy there too that is bothersome.”

SK:”Later this month you’ll be meeting with the Cuban ambassador to the United States, in the Tampa Bay area. What will you be talking to him about? And is one of the things that you’ll be talking about opening a consulate in St. Petersburg?”

“I’ve met the Ambassador several times. He’s been here to St. Petersburg and to the Tampa Bay area in the past, as has the Cuban Ballet for example. What I’ve talked to him in the past about was the idea of a consulate, although under this administration I think that’s not very possible right now.

“But I still believe there are opportunities for exchanges. They may be significantly limited because of this new policy.

“But we are both coastal communities, and so Havana for example and St. Petersburg both have to be concerned with sea level rise and climate change. And so how are they addressing it? Those were the things that I thought we had real opportunities for exchanges in.

“I know USF — their medical school — has had exchanges with the Cuban government. Our Florida Orchestra has had exchanges from a cultural standpoint. Havana as a city and the country of Cuba are very arts and culturally oriented — the performing arts and the visual arts are very big there. And we saw opportunities for exchanges of those.

“So, you know, I still would like to talk about what opportunities still exist under the current restrictions. And of course I always share with them the fact that we would love to see the people have more freedoms and see that happen. And I had quite frankly seen some of that happening in the 3 different trips I had taken after President Obama had made the policy change that he had made. I think we’re going to go backwards unfortunately because of it [Trump’s policy reversal].”

SK: “What do you make of the thought that the Mayor of Tampa (Jane Castor) — her spokesperson said that she doesn’t have any availability to meet with the Cuban Ambassador?”

“Yeah, I’m not going to weigh in on the politics of Tampa when it comes to the Cuban community. I think it’s different in Tampa than it is in St. Petersburg. Some of the folks in Tampa are a lot more passionate against doing away with the embargo or travel to Cuba, much more so than we saw here in St. Pete.

“Which was certainly one of my selling points to the Cuban officials: we don’t have some of those same political issues in St. Pete that there are in Tampa. And yet, when you look at a consulate, it’s all access to that consulate for various needs, you would still have great access because our cities are so close, geographically.”

SK: “Those are my only questions. Is there anything else people should know about the new Cuba policy, or anything else about Cuba?”

“I will tell your listeners: the people of Cuba are amazing. Everyone that I have ever met in my travels there was incredibly friendly, very welcoming to Americans, thought very highly of Americans. It’s a beautiful country, the arts and culture that exist there are gorgeous.

“Do I agree with everything the government does? Absolutely not — I would love to see more democracy in Cuba. But I don’t think putting a wall, so to speak, around ourselves — and being the only country, quite frankly, that’s doing that — is going to make a difference and change the paradigm for the government and the way their government is. And it certainly isn’t positive for the people. So if you feel similarly, let your Congressman and your Senators know.”

SK: “Mayor Rick Kriseman, thanks so much for joining me.”

“Thank you.”

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