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‘Tampa Accord?’ City may offer to host U.S.-Cuba deal

TAMPA — Tampa’s leaders are expected to extend an invitation to host any signing of agreements between the United States and Cuba as official relations continue to warm between the two nations.

On Thursday, within a week of Saturday’s historic meeting in Panama City between President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, the Tampa City Council will vote on a resolution urging Obama to choose Tampa as the site of any signing ceremony.

The resolution also calls for the agreement to be named “The Tampa Accord.”

“If and when that accord is signed, Tampa is the right place for it,” said City Councilwoman Yvonne Capin, who introduced the resolution. “It has been well established that no city in the U.S. has stronger historic ties to Cuba than our city.”

Capin said she is confident the resolution will pass, noting that earlier this month the city council unanimously passed another resolution supporting the establishment of a Cuban consulate in Tampa.

She is also confident an accord between the two nations is in the making. One roadblock was removed Tuesday with Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror.

“It seems like the next step, now that the two presidents met in Panama,” Capin said.

The Obama administration is already aware of Tampa’s desire to host such a meeting — and seems to have some interest, said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Rohrlack brought the idea to the attention of U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker when she was here as keynote speaker for the March 30 forum, “Tampa at the Forefront of Historic Change.”

“She already knew we wanted it because of our long connection to Cuba,” Rohrlack said.

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Rohrlack credits U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, with educating the administration on Tampa’s ties to Cuba. Castor has been lobbying the White House to choose Tampa since Obama announced Dec. 17 his initiative to normalize relations with Cuba.

Capin said Obama was pressed to choose Tampa as far back as 2007, when he was an Illinois senator on the presidential campaign trail.

The councilwoman’s late-husband Juan Capin coordinated a fundraising rally Obama attended at Ybor City’s Cuban Club.

“My husband said to him, ‘Should there ever be a meeting of minds between the U.S. and Cuba on U.S. soil, it needs to be in Tampa,” Capin said. “When my husband finished detailing the history of our city and Cuba, Obama agreed this did seem like the perfect city.”

Tampa was Cuba’s first major U.S. trading partner, exporting livestock such as cattle to the island nation in the mid-1800s.

Tampa later hosted the first major wave of Cuban immigrants in the late-1800s and early 1900s. They came for work in Tampa’s cigar rolling industry, then the largest in the world. Tobacco used in those cigars came from Cuba.

Tampa was also a supporter of the Cuba’s successful fight for independence against its colonial ruler Spain in the late-1800s. Tampa residents fought alongside Cubans and raised money for the cause.

And when Cuba’s beloved freedom fighter and poet Jose Marti wrote the order for the war to begin, he did so from Tampa and had the message smuggled onto the island inside a cigar rolled in Tampa.

It would be fitting, Capin said, for Tampa to host the signing of an accord ending the Cold War-era tension between the U.S. and Cuba.

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Fidel Castro, brother of President Raúl Castro and former long time leader of Cuba, visited Tampa in 1955 to raise money for his planned revolution. He stopped at the Cuban Club in Ybor City, which had enjoyed support — even contributions — from every Cuban president, said Paul Dosal, history professor at the University of South Florida.

Fulgencio Batista, driven from power by the Castro revolution, even offered to build a roof over the patio of the Cuban social club, Dosal said.

“School children in Tampa grow up learning about the history of Cuba and Cuban children learn about the history of Tampa,” said Bill Carlson, president of TuckerHall, a public relations agency in Tampa that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999.

“If a historic agreement is signed here, Tampa will once again be an important part of the history of Cuba.”

A city council resolution would join a growing list of examples showing Tampa and its people support the president’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, Councilwoman Capin said.

There is the council resolution seeking a Cuban consulate, a similar resolution by the chamber of commerce, the funding by Tampa’s St. Lawrence Church parishioners of the first Catholic Church being built in Cuba since Fidel Castro embraced communism, a partnership emerging between the Florida Aquarium and the National Aquarium of Havana, and a third chamber delegation to Cuba planned next month.

Carlson of TuckerHall suggested that anyone interested in seeing an agreement signed in Tampa should contact the president, www.whitehouse.gov, or State Department, state.gov.

“The Tampa accord would provide an opportunity for Tampa to gain free media exposure worldwide,” Carlson said. “It would be the most high profile and important event to occur here in decades.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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