Setting up the opening in travel was President Obama's decision in 2009 to allow unlimited travel to the island by Cuban Americans.
Then at the beginning of the year, he followed that by authorizing people-to-people exchanges that allow more Americans to visit Cuba and lifting some restrictions on travel by religious and academic groups. The president also increased the number of U.S. and Puerto Rican airports that could provide charter service to Cuba from three to 15.
"As policy toward Cuba changes, we want to take advantage of it," Keating says.
Shortly before the new flights began, Castor convened a brainstorming session with business owners, representatives from both the Ybor City and West Tampa chambers of commerce, tourism officials and the Ybor City Development Corp. to come up with ways to market Tampa to families, and educational and cultural groups as the "jumping-off point" for Cuba travel.
Now three charter companies offer four weekly flights between Tampa and Cuba. By the end of the year, they are expected to carry 8,874 passengers, says Janet Zink, a spokeswoman for Tampa International Airport.
But that pales compared to Miami International Airport, which handled nearly 320,000 Cuba-bound passengers last year and expects even more this year.
Still, Zink says, "There's no question about it, we consider ourselves an alternative to Miami. There's a very strong effort here in Tampa, not only by the airport, to strengthen ties with Cuba.''
That's what Tampa Councilwoman Mary Mulhern was trying to do when she proposed sending a letter of goodwill to the president of Cuba's parliament to mark the inauguration of the charter flights and to express a desire to expand them and explore "future opportunities."
During one discussion about the letter, Councilman Mike Suarez objected, saying, "Our role as City Council is not to make international policy."
After three rounds of discussion, the City Council finally voted on Sept. 22 to send the letter -- two weeks after the inaugural flight and after Mulhern had already flown and returned from a quick trip to Cuba.
In an editorial before the vote, The St. Petersburg Times noted that "the last thing Tampa needs is to reprise the Cold War dramas over Cuba that too often drag down the political discourse in Miami" and urged the council to "focus on the progress this nation and the community are finally making on reuniting two nations with a shared heritage."
Albert Fox, a former Washington lobbyist who has made some 80 trips to Cuba and arranged visits by members of Congress and governors, says he finally hand-delivered the letter to Jorge Bolanos, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Adding to the Cuba drama in Tampa Bay is the aborted visit of two Cuban diplomats -- First Secretary Raul Sanchez and Juan Jacomino, second secretary and press attache at the interests section.
Normally, such Cuban officials aren't permitted to travel beyond the Beltway and they must ask special permission of the State Department to venture further afield.
But Fox -- the founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuban Policy Foundation, which supports normalization of relations with Cuba -- and a coalition of business executives extended the invitation and began arranging meetings. Fox says the Tampa chamber, executives at the port and airport, and the Florida Citrus Mutual had all agreed to meet with the Cuban diplomats.
He says the Oct. 26 trip was canceled because the State Department said paperwork wasn't in order. A new date of Nov. 9 was set, says Fox, but the State Department denied the travel request. Castor questioned the turn-down, especially since Bolanos had permission to speak in Ohio in mid-November. Castor said the State Department told her it was responding to travel restrictions on the new U.S. station chief in Havana and the Ohio trip "was planned and approved well before."
Ros-Lehtinen, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, does not favor Cuban diplomats traveling around the United States.
"These so-called Cuban 'diplomats' sometimes serve as spies for the Castro regime," she says, and Havana "continues to be a threat to the national security of the United States."
Meanwhile, both Robert Rohrlack, president and chief executive of the Tampa chamber, and Castor say they are planning trips to Cuba early next year.
The Cuba flights, Rohrlack says, are part of an overall strategy to bring more international business to the Tampa airport and he will make the trip mostly to show support for the flights and a desire to keep them successful.
During her visit, Castor says she intends to press Cuban officials on their plans for offshore oil drilling and its potential impact on Florida, and to follow up on the Florida Orchestra exchange, which is envisioned as a multi-year program with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba.
Pointing up the differences between Miami and Tampa, last year the Miami City Commission passed a resolution urging Congress to pass legislation to oppose such exchanges as long as Cuba continues to violate human rights and deny its citizens basic freedoms.
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