The Tampa Chamber of Commerce, plans a trip to Cuba on May 12, its third since 2013, with visits to the port of Mariel, briefings on telecom and other new business opportunities, and meetings with Cuban cuentapropistas — self-employed entrepreneurs. Even though the embargo remains in place, President Barack Obama’s new opening would allow trade with Cuba’s private sector. Also, headed to Cuba this month is a 63-person cultural mission, composed mostly of Cuban Americans with ties to Ybor City where Vicente Martínez Ybor opened the first cigar factory in 1886.
The goal of the Tampa contingent is simple and they make no excuses, they want to be the gateway city in the United States to Cuba. They realize that it could take decades for Miami to warm to any nominalization of relations with Cuba and Tampa feels they can be the United States hub for the island nation.
The chamber board also recently passed a unanimous resolution favoring establishment of a Cuban consulate in the Tampa/Hillsborough County area once the United States and Cuba complete the process of reestablishing diplomatic ties. There was a Cuban consulate in Ybor City until the United States broke off relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961.
While there is some opposition from the Tampa area Cuban community it is far from the almost across the board and vocal opposition that comes from Miami. It no doubt comes from the way the two cities view Cuba.
Long before Miami was even a city, there were cigars factories manned by Cuban’s who lived and worked in Tampa’s Ybor City. It is in the same Ybor City neighborhood that Cuban independence icon José Martí would rally supporters and money to help the Cuban cause. It was not until the 1930’s and 40’s before Cuban exiles would begin to become a force in the Miami area.
In Miami, where the 1959 Cuban Revolution meant exile, lost property and uprooted families for many Cubans, people are still finding their way on President Barack Obama’s new Cuba policy. Some support engagement with Cuba; others reject it but overall the embrace of the new policy is far stronger in Tampa than it is in the Miami-Dade area.
Tampa business leaders also are trying to push the concept of visitors spending a few days in Tampa, exploring the city’s Cuban culture, visiting the statue of José Marti. The leaders know that there is no better selling point than Ybor City where you can smell Cuban bread being baked, hear and hear the Cuban music coming from the many Cuban clubs that still call the area home.
The chamber also see’s Tampa International Airport as their gateway for flights to Cuba and the Port of Tampa as the home to the cruise industry. There is still a long way to go in this process but clearly Tampa wants to be at the head of the line when things do begin to happen and U.S. Citizens can visit Cuba.