The first charter flight from Tampa International Airport to Cuba in nearly 50 years took off Sept. 8 -- the feast day of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Cuba's patron saint -- and since then, Tampa hasn't quite been the same.
There has been a flurry of Cuba-related activity in the Tampa Bay area -- the likes of which would be hard to imagine in South Florida -- starting with the letter of friendly greetings that the Tampa City Council sent to Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly.
Since charter service began, the president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce says he's planning a trip to Cuba, there's been an invitation extended to Cuban diplomats in Washington to visit Tampa business leaders, the Tampa-based Florida Orchestra sent a contingent of musicians to Cuba on a cultural exchange and the Tampa Port Authority held a seminar on potential trade opportunities with the island.
Meanwhile, plans to try to position Tampa as the gateway for travel and trade with Cuba gain momentum in the business community.
"We think Tampa is a perfect place as a gateway city to Cuba,'' says Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Bay Democrat who has championed lifting all restrictions on travel to Cuba and lobbied hard for the Tampa charter flights.
People traveling to Cuba could come to Tampa, she says, and take an immersion course in Cuban history, learn Spanish and walk the narrow brick streets of Ybor City, the Tampa neighborhood where Cuban patriot Jose Marti rallied cigar workers to lend their support in the Cuban War for Independence against Spain in the 1890s.
"Miami has great Cuban historical and cultural ties but Tampa Bay does, too," she says.
For Castor, who also thinks the embargo has "outlived its usefulness," cementing Tampa's status as a gateway city is all about creating jobs, especially for small businesses such as motels and hotels in Ybor City, restaurants and shops. "The No. 1 issue is jobs and the economy in my area," she says.
But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, says such efforts are misguided: "I find it unfortunate when some look to partner with the Cuban regime and place the value of dollars over the value of people. There are many city officials and businesses throughout the U.S. who are advocating a lifting of all travel restrictions but this goes far beyond humanitarian family travel and would further enrich the Cuban tyranny."
While there have been some dissenting voices in Tampa's long-established Cuban community, Castor says most Cuban-Americans there are supportive of increasing linkages with Cuba. "The Tampa Bay area is a little bit different from Miami, and Tampa Bay Cubans are different from those who came to Miami after Castro's revolution. They have different ties to the island and are not quite as strident," she says.
"We have a long-standing history with Cuba that transcends what has happened in Cuba over the past 50 years," says Tom Keating, president and chief executive of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.
It dates back to 1886 when Vicente Martinez Ybor opened the first cigar factory. Master cigar workers from Cuba and Key West settled in casitas, or cottages, that surrounded the brick cigar factories, and at Marti's urging, many pledged a day's salary per week in support of Cuban independence.
Keating says the new flights to Cuba offer an opportunity to play up such connections.
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