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U.S. commerce chief expects Tampa-Cuba ties to pay off

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said she’s confident U.S. businesses will benefit from new travel and trade opportunities opened with the Cuba policies announced Dec. 17 by President Barack Obama.

They just won’t happen immediately.

In the same way the Obama administration has cautioned against expecting a sudden democratization of Cuba, Obama’s new openness toward Cuba will be slow in paying off financially, Pritzker said.

“We have to recognize this is going to take time,” Pritzker told The Tampa Tribune on Monday after her keynote speech at a Cuba forum titled “Tampa at the Forefront of Historic Change.”

The forum, at the Tampa Marriott Westshore, was put on by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce to help explain what the new policies mean.

Not all change will be slow in coming, Pritzker said.

For one thing, underwater telephone lines connecting the U.S. and Cuba are working for the first time in 15 years. The island recently welcomed its first free wireless hot spot. Travel to Cuba from the U.S. is increasing.

Even attendance at the forum Monday, 130 people, drove home Pritzker’s point that change is underway.

“What we do know from other countries who have gone through this transformation is that over time there will be more opportunities,” Pritzker told the Tribune. “The early and first often have an advantage, and that may mean you have to invest your time.”

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One factor slowing growth in trade, analysts say, is that the island’s government, citizens and businesses may not have the means yet to buy much from the United States.

So far, expanded business opportunities primarily are aimed at Cuba’s citizens and private industries.

Cubans make about $20 a month, according to Cuba’s National Statistics and Information Office — augmented by a range of services and subsidies provided by the Communist government.

The economic engine of self-employment accounts for about 483,000 people in a national workforce of 5.4 million, the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council reported, quoting Cuban government sources.

And though Cuba is considered a large world market, with more than 11 million people, that’s far below the population of many U.S. states, Pritzker said.

Florida, the third most-populous state, has about 20 million people.

A senior State Department official, speaking in a conference call with reporters Monday, noted that telecommunications devices are cleared for sale to Cuba under the expanded trade policy. The market appears poised to grow, with only 2 million Cubans estimated to have access to Internet service, for which the Cuban government is the sole provider.

“They will purchase what they need if they can,” the state official said.

That might not be much.

Last year, U.S. exports to Cuba were at their lowest since 2003 at $291 million, the trade and economic council reported. The peak was 2008, when more than $700 million in U.S. goods were sold to Cuba.

Those were all agricultural commodities — the only goods allowed until Obama’s new policy expanded the list to include construction supplies and telecommunications devices.

Still, whether Cuba buys more of those goods depends in part on obtaining the line of U.S. credit that remains illegal after five decades of the U.S. travel and trade embargo.

Pritzker had no comment on when or whether credit will be extended.

“For many of us, the change is never fast enough,” she said. “But there is change afoot.”

Cubans may find money to buy U.S. goods with the increase in remittances allowed under the Obama policy, said Tampa forum panelist Davin Blackborow, of the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. Cubans in the U.S. can now send home as much as $2,000 a quarter, up from $500.

Remittances to Cuba in 2014 totaled $3 billion, most of it from the U.S., the trade and economic council reported.

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Others attending the forum included Tampa City Council members Yvonne Capin and Charlie Miranda, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik.

Panelists included experts on trade and travel who explained how licenses are obtained, what types of opportunities are available and what is still off-limits — such as U.S. visits to Cuba for tourism.

These policy changes, Obama has said, are meant primarily to support the Cuban people by empowering them to financially support themselves through increased private-sector opportunities on the island nation implemented in recent years by President Raul Castro.

“We believe the best way to spread democracy is through commerce,” Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, told the forum.

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Tampa has a business history with Cuba dating to the 1800s when it exported cattle there and later became Cuba’s top importer of tobacco for the local hand-rolled cigar industry. Tampa also was a strong supporter of Cuba’s fight for independence against Spain and has the third largest Cuban-American population in the country.

Rep. Castor told the forum Tampa is playing an active role in normalizing relations.

Some examples: Parishioners at Tampa’s St. Lawrence Catholic Church are funding the first Catholic church built in Cuba since Fidel Castro embraced communism over 50 years ago, Cuban musicians regularly visit Tampa, the chamber of commerce is sending a delegation there in May, The Florida Aquarium is partnering with the National Aquarium of Havana, and airline travel from Tampa to Cuba is rising.

Some 12,000 people flew to Cuba from Tampa in the first two months of 2015, compared with just 8,000 in 2011, said Tampa International Airport spokeswoman Janet Zink.

Pritzker says Tampa knows the value of increasing trade, noting that the area shipped $6.7 billion in merchandise abroad during 2013.

This helped the region recover from the recession, she said.

When Cuba might play a larger role in trade with the U.S., Florida and Tampa, Pritzker would not say.

“I think we all want this done as quickly as possible,” she said. “But we cannot expect change overnight.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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