Monday, August 10, 2009

Time is right for opening to CubaBy Mary Mulhern, Special to the "Saint Petersburg Times".Florida.

By Mary Mulhern, Special to the "Saint Petersburg Times", Florida, In Print: Tuesday, August 11, 2009
My recent visit to Cuba with Tampa Port Authority Commissioner Carl Lindell, former U.S. Senate Secretary Joe Stewart and a group of business people revealed that the gap between Americans' perception and the reality of life in Cuba is substantial.
I was struck by the island's natural beauty, its rich cultural life and architecture, and the friendliness of its people. Live music echoes from open-air cafes in Old Havana, and families gather by the thousands along the Malecon — Havana's "Bayshore Boulevard."
This is not to say that Cuba is a paradise. The acres of green I see as our plane descends come into focus as fields of grass, not the patchwork of crops expected in a rural area. On the road from the airport, billboards still trumpet socialist propaganda.
The global recession is magnified in Cuba. Since losing Soviet agricultural support in the '90s, Cuba has struggled to increase production. Last year's hurricanes, the worst in the country's history, destroyed crops, infrastructure and housing. To see the difficulty of everyday life is to recognize both the economic failures of Cuba's political system and the failure of U.S. policy to change that system.
Every Cuban we met showed sincere affection and respect for Americans. Hearing where we were from prompted the exclamation, "Estados Unidos? Mucho gusto!" Tampa has an even bigger place in their hearts. One young man told me, "I love Tampa." Why? "Because it's not Miami."
A 3½-hour meeting with National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon made clear that Tampa's leaders are more than welcome in Cuba. And yet, of approximately 37 state government delegations, 40 U.S. senators and 175 members of Congress to visit Cuba, not one has been from Florida. Alarcon also insisted that we are not just Americans, but Tampeños! We discussed Tampa and Cuba's shared history, including 150 years of trade, the fight for independence from Spain and our mutual hero, Jose Marti.
Cubans have high hopes that President Barack Obama will restore relations but understand the disproportionate role that Miami politics play in our national policy. The meeting's clear message was that the Cuban government wants a friendly and mutually respectful relationship. They are prepared to meet with Obama or his designee to discuss any and all issues, including political prisoners and human rights.
Alberto Betancourt, senior adviser to Alinport, Cuba's international food purchasing agency, gave us an impressive briefing on Cuba's imports. The country purchased $4 billion in agricultural products from the United States between 2002 and 2008.
Although our proximity makes us Cuba's preferred exporter, the trade and travel restrictions undermine our competitive standing and are currently diverting $300 million in potential trade to other countries. Betancourt cited studies that show the first five years of normalized relations would generate trade of $21 billion in goods, services and tourism. The greatest financial benefit would come to regions closest to Cuba. That means Florida, and especially Tampa's port, airport and businesses.
At a time when we should be strengthening our relationships, the window for Tampa to re-establish our historic kinship with Cuba is closing. As Cubans observe other states, cities and ports advocating for an end to trade and travel restrictions, Tampa is conspicuously absent. Louisiana and Texas now account for 81 percent of U.S. exports to Cuba while Florida accounts for just 6 percent. The Economist reported last week that Mobile, Ala., a sister city to Havana since 1993, is actively courting Cuba's port business.
To deny ourselves the huge economic and job potential that free travel and trade mean for Tampa Bay is indefensible, especially during this severe economic downturn.
Our citizens are ready for change. Recent polls show a majority of Americans want to end the embargo, and a majority of Miami Cubans want to end travel restrictions. I urge U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez to listen to their constituents, send a clear signal to the president, and sign on to the Senate and House bills ending travel restrictions.
Finally, I encourage other local elected officials, the Port Authority and the Chamber of Commerce to visit Cuba to reach their own conclusions about the realities there and gain a better understanding of the opportunities for Tampa Bay.
After half a century, it is time to engage the Cuban government as it is. Washington is expected to restart talks with North Korea soon and hopes to persuade Iran to resume discussions about its nuclear effort. Our citizens are free to visit every other country in the world.
I look forward to returning to Cuba on behalf of Tampa's taxpayers and business community later this year. I hope it won't require U.S. government permission to do so.
Mary Mulhern is a Tampa City Council member.
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