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Even if consulate goes elsewhere, Tampa to be key to U.S.-Cuba thaw

Tampa leaders have offered up the city as host for the first Cuban consulate in the United States in more than five decades. But even if it goes elsewhere, people here will keep the Cuban government busy.

Tampa has the third largest Cuban population in the United States, a growing number of flights to the island nation and people who want to do business there.

What’s more, Tampa’s Florida Aquarium and the National Aquarium in Havana are expected to announce a partnership soon on coral reef research, cultural exchanges are becoming routine, and universities are eager to conduct studies there.

“I think the initial importance of a Cuban consulate is to provide convenience to Cuban Americans based in Tampa and central Florida,” said Bill Carlson, president of TuckerHall, a public relations agency in Tampa that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999.

The only question, then, as the two nations work to normalize relations, is whether people in Tampa will deal with the Cuban government here or somewhere else.

Speculation about where one or more consulates may open in the United States has escalated with the announcement that each nation will open an embassy in the other on July 20, marking the return of formal diplomatic relations that were severed in 1961.

An embassy serves its nation’s political interests, while a consulate provides assistance to citizens and business interests. Among the duties of a consulate are issuing visas, doubling as an official voting site during elections in the home country, helping its citizens with legal affairs and promoting and assisting with trade and other business ventures.

To see what goes on, look to Greece and Panama which have deemed the Tampa Bay area so crucial to their interests they have dispatched consuls general here with direct ties to their leaders back home. Consuls general are paid career diplomats and citizens of the nation they represent.

Greece’s is at 400 N. Tampa St.; Panama’s is at 6107 Memorial Highway.

In addition, the Bay area has six honorary consuls — people living here who volunteer to serve as liaisons with a consul general in another city or state. There is also a Tampa Bay Trade & Protocol Council that acts as liaison for nations not represented here by a consul general or honorary consul.

Winning a consular office would provide people in Tampa faster services from Havana and establish the city as a gateway to Cuba. It also would mean a visit whenever a top Cuban diplomat comes to Florida, paving the way for closer connections with leaders from the island nation.

In the long run, Carlson said, a Cuban consulate would tell the world that Tampa is a growing commercial hub and likely attract business from other Latin American destinations.

When an announcement will come from the Cuban government is anybody’s guess, nor is there an official list of contenders. Still, Tampa often is mentioned in the same breath as Miami, home of the biggest Cuban American population, and New York, near the second-largest population in northern New Jersey.

Among the reasons are Tampa’s current ties to Cuba, the historic ties that date to the city’s once-thriving industry making cigars from Cuban tobacco, and enthusiastic invitations from both the Tampa City Council and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

“I think Tampa has the best chance of getting it,” said Milton Vescovacci, a shareholder in the Miami office of the GrayRobinson law firm, which represents U.S. citizens interested in doing business with Cuba. “You have the proximity to Cuba and a Cuban American population that is more receptive to opening ties as opposed to some in Miami who are not.”

Vescovacci said the first consulate probably will open in the Southeast, followed by the West Coast and perhaps the Northeast.

Critics of a consulate in Tampa say it would become a center for protesters. Strong opposition remains to normalizing relations with Cuba as long it is ruled by the communist Castro regime.

Vescovacci questions these concerns. Perhaps at first, he said, but in time people would come to realize a consulate has a practical rather than political mission.

Criteria in choosing a city to host a consulate include commercial activity and the number of people with ties to the home country, said Adamantia Klotsa, consul general of Greece in Tampa, whose office serves Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.

“Usually, consulates in Florida are based out of Miami because it is considered the center of commercial and economic business for the state,” Klotsa said. “And business is a great part of what a consulate does.”

The large Greek population in Tarpon Springs was a significant factor in opening a consulate in Tampa in 2006, she said.

With around 145,000 Cuban Americans, the Tampa area’s population is just a fraction of the 1 million in the Miami area.

Still, even though his city is home to more than 30 consulates, Mayor Tomas Regalado has said he would fight any efforts to put a Cuban consulate there. Memories linger there of what the Castro revolution cost in life and property.

Even if a Cuban consulate winds up in Miami — or New Orleans, a city that also shares historic ties with Cuba and still trades with the island nation — Tampa could get one of its own.

Panama, for example, home of the expanding Panama Canal, has a consulate in Miami that serves Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands and another in Tampa that serves Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia.

Tampa shipping agent Arthur Savage, of A.R. Savage & Son, said he is confident Tampa will land a Cuban consulate. Even if it doesn’t, though, Savage expects to see an honorary consul named for Tampa.

Savage is honorary consul in central Florida for Norway and Denmark — nations with an interest here because of business and tourism.

“Typically honorary consuls were once primarily put in port towns because that was the only way to get to this country,” Savage said.

Other nations with honorary consuls in Tampa are Honduras, Liberia, Peru and Spain. St. Petersburg has honorary consuls representing Estonia and Lithuania, and Clearwater has honorary consuls for Russia and France.

Duties of honorary consuls vary. Some can perform all the duties of a consul general as they report to the official diplomat. Others fulfill some duties directly while acting as liaison for the consul general on the rest.

If no consul is named in Tampa, the Tampa Bay Trade & Protocol Council would serve as liaison to the consulate office.

The council is made up of representatives from the Tampa chamber, city of Tampa, Hillsborough County, Visit Tampa Bay tourism agency, Tampa International Airport, Port Tampa Bay, the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa.

In the months leading to the International Indian Film Academy Awards, held in Tampa in 2014, the council worked with the Indian Consulate in Atlanta on the approval of more than 700 visas for those traveling from India to Tampa, said council Executive Director Deborah Wilkinson.

“I’m proud that Tampa in my opinion is the only place outside of Miami so organized in this manner,” Wilkinson said. “We have a strong international movement here that is well taken care of.”

Still, a full-time Cuban consul general in Tampa would provide the best representation, said Carlson of TuckerHall.

“Having that presence here will help our community maintain direct ties to jointly develop trade, travel and investment opportunities,” Carlson said.

“We have the longest history with Cuba. We were the center of trade before the embargo. And our business and community leaders have been leaders in Florida in re-engagement with Cuba. There are many reasons why we should have the consulate here.”

 

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