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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Discussing U.S.-Cuba relations

By JOE O'NEILL
Tribune correspondent
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The recent Tampa seminar on United States-Cuba relations and related issues - trade, politics and perspective - was as notable for who was there as who wasn't.
Among the 150 attendees at Ybor City's Italian Club: Tampa City Council Chairman Tom Scott and council members Mary Mulhern and Linda Saul-Sena. Hillsborough County Clerk of Circuit Court Pat Frank and Tampa Port Authority member Carl Lindell were also on hand at the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy-hosted seminar: "Rapprochement With Cuba: Good for Tampa Bay, Good For Florida, Good For America."
Among the no-shows: anyone from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the Iorio administration, World Trade Center Tampa Bay and the office of Tampa-based U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.
The event was by invitation, which targeted public officials, as well as via public notice. According to alliance president Al Fox, anyone who called and wanted to attend, even staunch opponents of rapprochement with Cuba, were to be admitted. The one proviso for Cuban hardliners, and Tampa still has a few, was that they give assurances of "no disturbances," including banners. Few took him up on it, said Fox, including several demonstrators in front of the Italian Club, who opted to remain outside.
Cuba-related gatherings have their own unique dynamic. Palpable political overtones and subplots are a given. It often gets personal. Where else could a half century's worth of counterproductive, Cold War atavism even be up for debate?
Agendas and rationales run the political-ideological-venal gamut. Some public officials, notably Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, don't want to appear to be meddling in foreign policy.
Others, such as some members of Florida's Congressional delegation, are in the pocket of Miami-area, exile-community power brokers, such as U.S. Reps. Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, when it comes to Cuba. U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Kendrick Meek come readily to mind.
A familiar refrain from those opposed to normalized relations with Cuba, especially the lifting of the trade embargo, is that to do so would be to reward a repressive regime. One that won't make meaningful moves on political prisoners and democracy.
"Democracy in Cuba is not the issue," underscored Fox. "The issue is what is best for America and not having individual rights suppressed by a handful of Batistianos. Can you imagine Taiwan telling America not to have normal relations with China? Why should that (South Florida) family feud influence anybody else's thinking?"
No matter the obvious upsides -- increased trade for Florida during a recession, unfettered freedom to travel and badly needed credibility in America's own hemisphere -- personal politics and PAC dollars still exert inordinate leverage. A prime example is HR 874, the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act," which would open up travel to Cuba for all Americans.
It has more than 150 Congressional signatories. Significantly -- and confoundingly -- none are from Florida. HR 874's sponsor, Congressman William Delahunt, D-Mass., told the conference attendees (via speaker phone) that it was "important for those in Florida to lead the way."
Indeed, how could anyone seriously expect the Obama administration to move at more than an incremental pace on Cuba when the Congressional delegation from Florida, the state with the most to gain, remains on the sidelines? Ironically, Americans can travel freely to Iran, but not Cuba. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, si, but the Castro Brothers, no.
"U.S. foreign policy shouldn't be manipulated to serve a political agenda," said Florida attorney Tony Martinez, a conference speaker. "The majority of all Americans want the ending of the embargo and the lifting of travel restrictions."
The embargo, moreover, is the single most important factor that has "kept Cuba from evolving from its status quo," observed Alfredo Duran, a Bay of Pigs veteran and the former head of the Democratic Party of Florida. The embargo has also turned America into Uncle Scapegoat for all that is inherently wrong with Cuba's failed economic system, he added.
"There's nothing that (Fidel) Castro has loved more," stressed Duran, who's also an attorney. It has enabled the government to, in effect, depict Cuba as "at war" with the U.S. The rationale: "No friendly country embargoes another friendly country."
For the Port Authority's Lindell, the matter of traveling to Cuba and doing business on the island is no longer a debatable subject.
"It's been 50 years of this," reminded Lindell. "Let's make something happen. Cuba's not a threat to us. It's not a terrorist state. It (ending the embargo) would be a great gesture to all of Latin America. We have nothing to lose, but lots to gain."
And Lindell will soon get an up close and personal look at Cuba. He and city council member Mulhern will not be no-shows when a Tampa Bay delegation visits Cuba later this month.
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