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Tampa Chamber of Commerce positioning Tampa Bay to prosper with post-sanction Cuba

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Last week, a delegation of Tampa area officials visited Cuba in a trip organized by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

It was the third excursion to the Communist island led by the Chamber in the past few years, but it was “certainly the most productive and most historic,” says Ronald Christaldi, a partner with the Tampa law firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick LLP and chair of the Tampa Chamber. Christaldi and a handful of other officials who were part of the delegation spoke about their hopes for Tampa and the United States in general when it comes to business opportunities in Cuba once more freedom comes to the island.

“Make no mistake: This Chamber’s role is to position the Tampa Bay region to be ready to do business in Cuba with Cuba, importing and exporting, when the switch gets flipped,” Christaldi said, referring to what will be the ultimate game-changer in terms of U.S.- Cuba relations — an official end to the 55-year-old U.S. economic embargo.

Those sanctions can only be undone by Congress, which doesn’t appear poised to make such a move anytime soon. However, President Obama last December made the most significant change to date between the two nations since the sanctions went into place, when he called for a full restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba last December 17. The move eased restrictions on remittances, travel and banking, while Cuba promised to allow their people more Internet access, and agreed to release 53 Cubans identified as political prisoners by the United States.

Tampa officials say that because of historic and familial ties, no city in the country is more enthusiastic or believes they can benefit best from the ending of such sanctions than the Cigar City. Since the diplomatic breakthrough late last year, the Tampa City Council has voted to support resolutions calling for a Cuban consulate to be built in Tampa, as well as the city serving as the U.S. hub for any major agreement between the two nations. (Christaldi said the idea of a Cuban consulate in Tampa was “very well received” by officials he spoke with.)

Though optimism has soared in Tampa in particular and the Bay area regionally over the past few years about the city and region capitalizing once the economic embargo ends, skeptics question how significant an economic boost that will provide, considering that Cuba’s population is only around 12 million people, with the average government employee earning just $20 a month. In The New York Times earlier this month, famed anti-Castro Tampa critic Ralph Fernandez said that Cuba has less buying power than the city of Lakeland.

But officials say Cuba is potentially a great business opportunity.

“What we’re hearing from our members is that a 12-million person market is a market that we want to go into,” said Christaldi.

Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano made his second trip to Cuba. He said that while the island nation might be a small economy, “For us, it’s big business.” That’s because since Tampa International has been allowed to have direct flights from Cuba (a change that occurred in 2011), the airport has picked up a tremendous amount of business from visitors who could previously fly only out of Miami. He said the airport makes $1 million annually from the flights. “It’s real money for the airport,” adding that TIA sees the opportunity to expand direct flights into perhaps two more Cuban cities in the future.

“The opportunity is the future,” said Busch Gardens Tampa President Jim Dean. “It will take some time,” he conceded. He also denied that Busch Gardens had any immediate interest in building a similar theme park in Cuba.

“We consider a 12 million population country as a pretty big deal, added Richard Barkett, CEO with Amalie Oil. He said that could be “leveraged over time,” and says all it will take is some changes by the Cuban government to have U.S. businesses flourish.

As opposed to the other officials at the press conference, former Tampa Chamber CEO Jose Valiante made a point to talk about how normalized relations between the two governments can hopefully aid the Cuban people. “All this stuff we’re doing is going to help them eventually, it’s going to better their lives, eventually.”

Former USF President Betty Castor was particularly interested in cultural and educational exchanges. “I think that’s the way to build up relationships.” The group visited the workshop of noted Cuban artist Jose Fuster, acclaimed for his unique style of mixing painting and ceramics. She also noted how she saw a group in Cuba of Washington State University journalism and communication students, and grew wistful that students from USF or any other state university is banned by the state Legislature from taking an education trip to Cuba.

“I hope that changes,” she said. “I hope we can work to build the education exchanges, because education and culture will be a key to establishing normalization.”

Christaldi also said that forging relations between officials with the two region’s airports, seaports and hospitals (members from Moffitt Cancer Center were on the trip) is also something substantive that came out of the trip.

Advocates for increasing Tampa’s historic connections to Cuba have said for years that the city would be far behind other cities and states who have cultivated relationships with officials unless they began to engage. While Tampa is now engaged, so are many others. Last month New York Gov.Andrew Cuomo took a delegation to Cuba, and Christaldi said today that officials from New Orleans, Charlotte and other areas are making those connections as well.

“Florida, and the Tampa Bay region, cannot afford to stand flat-footed, while the rest of the world positions itself to take advantage of this economic opportunity,” Christaldi said. “This is about jobs, this is about economic growth, this is about positioning the Tampa Bay region to be a competitor in a world economy. We cannot afford to stand flat-footed. We must move forward.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at [email protected]

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