TAMPA — A delegation that traveled to Cuba last week signed up in the belief they would be part of history — the Charlie Crist excursion, featuring the Florida gubernatorial candidate who denounced the Cuban embargo.
But Crist, the St. Petersburg Democrat, pulled out, saying he didn’t have time before the Nov. 4 election.
So instead, Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Capin led the 43-member group — elected officials, arts and civic leaders and business people.
And while the July 16-20 trip didn’t draw the attention Crist would have, the travelers returned home confident they still made a difference, sowing seeds for return trips to bring positive change.
Two examples: Restoring a crumbling monument in Havana that honors U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr and guiding the Cuban government on ways to make the nation more accessible to the disabled. Among those who hope to return are state Rep. Darryl Rouson, the St. Petersburg Democrat and a Martin Luther King Jr. scholar, and Tampa’s Arizona Jenkins, member of a committee that provides advice on disability issues to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.
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Albert A. Fox Jr., founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, organized the trip and said he is already in discussions with the Cuban government to set up meetings for both causes. ❖ ❖ ❖
The Martin Luther King Jr. monument is in the Havana section called Vedado.
It consists of two marble and granite walls — one with an engraved photo of King, his dates of birth and death, and behind it a longer wall resembling the Vietnam Memorial with excerpts from King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” in English and Spanish.
The monument was erected in the 1980s, Fox said. As many as half the raised bronze letters have disappeared over the years.
“Dr. King’s legacy deserves better,” Fox said.
Vedado is best known as the location of the U.S. Interests Section, like an embassy except the two nations have no formal diplomatic relations. Vedado is also home to monuments honoring Abraham Lincoln, musician John Lennon, civil rights activist Malcolm X and the USS Maine — the battleship whose mysterious explosion in Havana harbor touched of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Some believe Cuba honors U.S. civil rights heroes as a publicity stunt. Others say the government has a true affinity for those who fought for equality.
Rouson’s motive is not political, he said, but rooted in his desire to spread King’s philosophy.
“We should want it to be in perfect condition so his message can clearly reach,” Rouson said. “The words of Dr. King can inspire men and women everywhere. This is about honoring a man who was against violence and for equal rights not just in America but all over the world.”
Fox said it is too early to consider a specific plan or costs.
“Let’s talk with the Cuban government and our delegation and see what we can come up with,” he said.
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Jenkins found his purpose for making the Cuba change while he was there, once he found that accommodations for people with disabilities are even poorer than he expected.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, with ramps and specially built rooms, was one exception.
First, he had to leave behind his motorized wheelchair because of restrictions on the size of batteries allowed on board the aircraft in which he flew.
The delegation was able to find him a manual push chair in Cuba. He does not have full use of his hands.
“It was the best they could get,” he said.
And he learned that in all of Havana, only three vans have a mechanized lift for a chair — none of them available during his trip.
Jenkins had to be pushed everywhere he went and lifted by hand into vans.
“It created awareness for all of us,” said Frank Reno of Cuba Executive Travel, who licensed and accompanied the delegation on its trip.
Reno has been to Cuba over 80 times and never realized how inaccessible it is.
“But perhaps Arizona can now lend his guidance to Cuba in this arena,” he said.
“It’s an educational process,” Jenkins said. “I want to let them know what they need to do and which step they need to do next. They don’t have to spend as much money as they may think. They just need to spend it right.”
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Fox has had success brokering such meetings in the past, initiating meetings in 2010 that led to an agreement this year between Cuba and the U.S. to work together in the event of an oil spill in Caribbean waters.
Fox’ connection to Martin Luther King Jr. dates to his days working for then-Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield. When King visited the Senate, Fox showed him around. Later, as a lobbyist, he served as chairman for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.
He has been interested in repairing the Havana monument and invited Rouson because he’s a King scholar.
“I know few people who have studied Dr. King more than he has,” Fox said.
Rouson proved his knowledge on his first visit to the memorial July 19.
As Rouson talked to a dozen members of the delegation about restoration, he began reciting King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
“He knew every word of it,” Fox said. “And Cubans walking by stopped to listen. By the time he was done, a crowd had formed around him. It gave me goose bumps. His delivery was perfect.”
The next day, the entire delegation visited the monument and Rouson delivered the speech again.
“I was mesmerized,” Councilwoman Capin said. “And so was everyone else who walked by.”
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What Rouson remembers about the visit twas Jenkins’ words.
“He told me he has been fighting for equal rights for the disabled for years,” Rouson said. “He said we have come so far in our country but then he saw how far behind Cuba is and said he wanted to do something to help them too.”
Jenkins said Cuba has good intentions but lacks the resources and knowhow to accommodate the disabled.
He said Cuban citizens helped him whenever he needed it. But he also noticed few disabled people in the streets..
The delegation traveled under a “people to people” cultural and educational license. The group met with Cuba’s minister of oil, the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, and leaders of Cuban cultural and arts organizations.
Other members of the delegation included former secretary of the U.S. Senate Walter Stewart, CFO of the Alabama based producer of construction aggregates Vulcan Materials Daniel Sansone; Tampa restaurant owner Scott Courtney; and David Cox, founder of the Gasparilla Music Festival.
Mario Nunez, host of the cable access show Tampa Natives, joined the delegation to support Crist and admitted he was disappointed at the candidate’s cancellation.
Still, he said, he’s glad he went.
“It was wonderful,” he said. “Who knows, if they do what they want to do maybe this trip will be historic anyway.