While Miami argues, Tampa looks to become the center of Cuban-American trade

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Is Tampa the new Miami?

With the largest population of Cubans outside the island, one might assume that Miami would be the center of a renewed political and commercial relationship with Cuba, a process that was initiated by the Obama administration this week.


But, if reaction to the news from Miami-area politicians and businesses is any indicator, that assumption might be off course. Just after the announcement that Havana would reestablish an embassy in Washington, the Miami Herald asked Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, a Cuban native, about the prospect of placing a consulate in his city.

"[It] would be a mistake because it would create a safety issue," he said. "Because some people eventually will try to do something to the consulate."

Indeed, things have often gotten violent in Miami over the question of ties to the Cuban relations. Businesses have been bombed or burned down here for doing business on the island, the latest instance of which happened in 2012. In other instances, musicians visiting from Cuba have been subjected to violent protests and terrorist threats. In Miami, where about one third of the population is of Cuban origin, there are signs that passions about the island's politics might just be too hot to handle for politics and  business.

Yet while Miami might take issue with expanded relations, the city of Tampa, on Florida's opposite coast, has been positioning itself as a more welcoming alternative.

"Going back to about 2006, the chamber was having discussions on what will happen, when and if, relations change, and how that will impact the greater Tampa area," Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, told Fusion. "In Miami it's a much less agreeable relationship."

Rohrlack says that his group has twice met with Obama administration officials about the prospect of broadening business relations with the island. The chamber has already taken exploratory trips to the island with its members, including businesspeople and city politicians. Another 2015 trip is already in the works. "'Let's get going.' That's been our position on it," Rohrlack said.


Ties between Tampa and Havana have been strong since the 1800s. Ybor City, an historic Tampa neighborhood, was founded by a cigar makers who came from Cuba, and a thriving Cuban population emerged in the city, of which nearly 100,000 descendants remain. This population raised funds for the Cuban War of Independence, as well as for Castro's 1959 Revolution.

Prior to the move to end diplomatic ties between the nations in 1961, there was a Cuban consulate in the city.

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Cuban cigar workers in Ybor City, circa 1920. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"We were surprised how much the Cubans knew about Tampa when we went there. There's a respect of, we have different political views, but there's strong respect and connection for the cultural connectivity," Rohrlack said. "The focus was: we don't agree on everything, but let's focus on what we can agree on, and in this case that's the prospect of building business relationships between here and there."


Travel and telecommunications companies will likely be among the first to see the effects of Obama's announcement, which will ease restrictions on both industries. The Tampa International Airport is looking at the shift in policy as a potential for growth, Janet Zink, assistant vice president of media and government relations of the airport, told Fusion.

Direct flights to Cuba from Tampa began in 2011, and have since served 153,000 individuals, she added. "When we started offering the flights, it was only two flights a week, and now we're up to five," she said. "We anticipate it will be a lot more people taking advantage of these flights. It is probably too early to say how much growth there could be, but I can imagine it would only go up."


Port Tampa Bay, one of the largest ports in the U.S., has also been anticipating the shift in relations. "Port Tampa Bay has been preparing for the possibility of open trade with Cuba for years," said Paul Anderson, Port Tampa Bay president and CEO. “When we receive word from the President and Congress that the embargo has been officially lifted, we will look forward to being a major gateway for people and cargo, to and from Cuba, for years to come."

A press release issued by the port reads: "If the U.S. government’s position changes, the Port is prepared to quickly move to aggressively market its first-rate facilities to our Cuban neighbors. Port Tampa Bay believes that Tampa is uniquely positioned to establish close and long-lasting commercial relationships with Cuba at such time as trade restrictions are lifted."


"Port Tampa Bay is the closest full-service U.S. port to Cuba—just 307 nautical miles from the Port of Havana," it also noted.

Port Miami, which is in the midst of a large-scale dredging project, has issued no statement or press release about the development, and did not return requests for comment.


Likewise, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Barry E. Johnson told Fusion that his organization has "taken no position" on this week's announcement.

"Certainly there are many areas of opportunity for business should Cuba become an open market for American business, but no one I think is making any business plans right now," he said.


Since the announcement, influential Miami-area politicians have held press conferences and issued statement after statement declaring the shift in Cuba policy as a travesty, and vowing to fight any changes the Obama Administration has set into motion.

In the meanwhile, Rohrlack of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce says that Tampa-area politicians are getting more excited and emboldened by the development, as evidenced by U.S.. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who said of the announcement: "This is such a remarkable accomplishment for Tampa."


"The support from our businesses and politicians is there," Rohrlack said. "And it is only growing, especially with the mood set this week by the President."

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.