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Tampa delegations exploring trade return from Cuba

Local leaders travel so often to Havana it’s as if there are no restrictions on visits between the countries.

Entertainers are making the trip, as well, from both sides.

The Fabulous Rockers, a popular nine-piece Tampa rock band from the 1950s and 1960s, performed a dinner show during the weekend in the city’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba and brought 64 local fans with it.

At the same time, a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce delegation of 35 business and civic leaders visited Cuba’s capital city to learn more about trade opportunities through talks with officials from the island nation’s biggest port.

And the Tampa accounting firm Prida Guida & Co. sent a three-person group on behalf of its clients from the U.S. agricultural industry to meet with the president of Alimport — the Cuban government agency that handles all trade.

The question now, 13 years after Mayor Dick Greco led the first Castro-era delegation to Cuba and as other Florida communities are now getting on the bandwagon, is what Tampa has to show for it.

Greco dined with Fidel Castro during that 2002 visit.

Other trips followed.

Mary Mulhern, who then served on the Tampa City Council, traveled to Cuba in 2009 to discuss trade possibilities with government officials The Tampa chamber has made three trips and a number of other visits have included elected officials and private businesses.

Still, Tampa has no substantial trade with Cuba as some other U.S. cities do.

“When I was there in 2009 they wanted to do business with Tampa,” said former councilwoman Mulhern. “Now six years later, we are no further along. We’re at the bottom of the list of cities that do business with Cuba.”

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For Lou Prida of the Prida Guida & Co., selling goods to Cuba is not something his clients will rush into.

“That was my first trip there and my first time learning about its business culture,” Prida said. “It is too early to determine anything but I left with a great feeling about the country and its prospects.”

Such a positive outlook might have brought criticism to the company five or six years ago, Mulhern said, which is why she thinks few in Tampa wanted to trade with the Communist nation.

“Everybody was afraid for their political survival,” she said. “No elected official would even talk about Cuba. It is a different environment now.”

At a Monday morning news conference on the chamber’s trip, chairman and delegation leader Ronald Christaldi said his organization will wait for the lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba before it seeks opportunities for members.

“The Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce will continue to be a leader in this region in making sure that when the switch gets flipped, when the government of the United States makes it permissible to do greater business deals and bigger import and export there, that this region will be ready,” Christaldi said.

For some sectors of the economy, the switch already has been flipped.

It has been legal in the U.S. to sell agricultural goods to Cuba since 2001. President Barack Obama recently added building supplies and telecommunications to that list.

Among the cities taking advantage of this are New Orleans, Mobile and Norfolk.

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The chamber’s Christaldi is aware of the competition.

“Other regions in this country are positioning themselves to take advantage of this opportunity,” he said at the news conference. “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 opportunity.”

Mulhern said she believes that’s just how Tampa is standing now.

Business relationships matter to the Cuban government, she said, and though Tampa’s chamber has created one, it doesn’t include the actual trade relationships other cities have established.

Tampa could gain a leg up if it succeeds in landing a Cuban consulate once diplomatic relations are restored — a move backed by both the city council and the chamber.

Chamber chairman Christaldi said Cuban officials he spoke with favor Tampa as a consulate.

Meantime, there isn’t much business for Tampa to be losing out on yet.

The latest report released by Cuba’s Economic Council says that so far in 2015, Cuba has purchased $71.5 million in agricultural commodities from the U.S. — on pace to be the lowest annual figure since 2001.

What’s more, Cuba might do all the trade it needs with friendlier governments willing to allow up to two years to pay for purchased goods, said John Kavulich, president of U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

Cuba’s struggling economy may limit the country to liberal financing like this.

But Rick Barkett, CEO of Amalie Oil and part of the Tampa chamber’s recent Cuba delegation, considers the Cuba market a “pretty big deal” and believes all it needs is “some changes in the government and things will change dramatically there.”

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Once Cuba reaches full capacity with a special development zone at the port of Mariel, every U.S. city will have a chance to work with the country, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, policy analyst for the Cuban government from 1992-94 and now is an academic in Denver. He predicts that may take another five years.

The Mariel zone consists of 180 square miles west of Havana that includes a port terminal with an initial annual capacity of up to 1 million containers as well as manufacturing and storage for trade.

“Past relations may matter,” said Lopez-Levy. “If everything else is equal they might try to keep the previous relationships. I think on this issue, the sooner you work with Cuba the better.”

If Tampa never becomes a trading partner with Cuba, it can still benefit from their relationship.

The Tampa International Airport already makes $1 million a year from charter flights traveling to Cuba. The number of passengers has increased each year since flights resumed in 2011, and analysts predict that trend will continue.

The Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa is on the verge of finalizing an agreement with the National Aquarium in Havana on coral reef research that could help improve the health of once vibrant reefs in the Tampa Bay area.

What’s more, cultural exchanges are ramping up.

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Two of Cuba’s top musicians performed at Tampa festivals in March.

Pop star Laritza Bacallao was a main attraction at the Gasparilla Music Festival.

Carlos Varela, known as Cuba’s Bob Dylan, took the stage at the Gasparilla International Film Festival following the screening of a documentary on his life.

Last November, Tampa-based cultural exchange organization Habana Art Travel flew the Cuban band Sol y Son to Tampa to headline a concert at the Ritz Theatre in Ybor City.

Habana Art then put together The Fabulous Rockers’ dinner show last weekend in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba’s ballroom.

The rock band performed such classics as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Unchain My Girl” to an audience of around 150.

At each of the ballroom’s 22 tables sat an equal number of Cuban citizens and American visitors.

But by the end of the show, few were sitting, said Dennis Pupello, leader of The Fabulous Rockers.

“People were dancing and having so much fun,” Pupello said. “It exceeded all my expectations.”

That’s true, in large part, because American and Cuban citizens did the Electric Slide dance side by side.

“I learned something this weekend,” Pupello said. “If we all concentrate on listening to beautiful music and dancing to great rhythms everything else will fall into place.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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