tbo: Tampa Bay Online.
Monday, Oct 15, 2018
  • Home

O’Neill: Sensible Cuban policy still awaits action

Ever notice how the subject of Cuba keeps popping up around here? Four reasons, that even a gringo-scribe transplant from Philadelphia can discern:

1. Havana and Tampa are historic soul mates. Ybor City. It’s part of who we are.

2. Arguably, no city would be impacted more by normalized U.S.-Cuban relations than this one.

3. Hard not to notice that all the wrong people – from ethnic families to business interests to humanitarian activists to geopolitical realists to right-to-travel-freely idealists – are still being penalized and inconvenienced because of Cold War policies, Miami/Dade-driven power politics and White House co-option.

We can’t help but be reminded that the Berlin Wall’s been down for a quarter century. That we invest in Vietnam. That Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive, is an ally – as are Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki. That we collaborate with neo-authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That we trade with the Internet-censoring, family-planning overlords of China. But Cuba’s got to come around.

4. Seemingly, there’s always something Cuba-centric in the Tampa area news cycle.

* Currently there are three weekly direct flights to Cuba from Tampa International Airport. They periodically are scrutinized and their statistics updated. But it’s a flight of fancy to think they can ever reach their potential because the market is artificially limited – to family, researchers and those with license access.

* There are occasional high-profile trips that make headlines that have involved TIA chief Joe Lopano, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft, chamber of commerce sorts and politicians – from city council members to County Commissioner Mary Mulhern to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. While this is a net positive, we are inevitably reminded that progress remains merely incremental. In effect, we’re still doing “getting-to-know you” trips with someone an hour away more than half a century after normal relations were severed.

* The University of Tampa baseball team recently spent a week in Cuba, playing some exhibition games, giving away equipment and chatting up locals. The Spartans went, not simply because Tampa and Cuba obviously share baseball roots and geographic proximity – but because UT went the circuitous, People-to-People licensure route. How politically convoluted for something that should be so easy.

And how, frankly, so arbitrary. That’s because this was something that the USF or Hillsborough Community College baseball teams would not have been able to pull off. And that’s due to an absurd Florida law, the Travel to Terrorist States Act, which restricts state colleges and universities from traveling to Cuba and other “terrorist states.” Yeah, Cuba is right there with Iran, Sudan and Syria. It’s what drives reasonable people to the mattresses on this subject.

* And then every once in a while Tampa’s CEO and point man, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, will publicly comment on the situation. To the mayor’s credit, he is consistent and he is candid. But he’s not helpful.

He doesn’t think it’s appropriate for him to visit Cuba while the economic embargo, however ineffectual, is still in place. He also puts the onus on Cuba to make meaningful democratic reforms. And he is unwavering in his oft-stated respect for those still around who were victimized by the Fidel Castro-led revolution.

The sentiment and loyalty come from a good place. But it’s misplaced.

For those people who actually lost loved ones, property or a sense of homeland because of that revolution and its revolting results, it’s not my place – or intention – to criticize them for their gut feelings of loss. That’s beyond insensitive. I can’t walk in their shoes. In fact, if I did, I’d probably stumble all over myself in life-long vendetta mode.

It’s personal. I get it. And I get that the mayor, an honorable man, gets it.

But “personal” shouldn’t be a driver of foreign policy, especially a manifestly counterproductive one, any more than inordinate influence should be exercised by those who can’t abide normalized relations with Vietnam because their loved one was one of the nearly 60,000 who died during the war.

Nor should personal empathy and commitment put a self-imposed governor on the role of Tampa’s most influential public official. If the person in charge of the city with skin in this game can’t exercise leadership, it only makes it easier for the usual suspects to continue to leverage their remaining influence to the detriment of all those outside their ideological circle.

Whatever helps maintain the status quo is not helpful. To the United States. To Florida. To Tampa.

Security ever present

Sobering sign of the times: The Gasparilla Children’s Parade is a special event, and Tampa is lucky to have it. The 1.4-mile extravaganza looks like Tampa – white, black and brown. English and Spanish. Lots of families. Little kids on the shoulders of dads. A parade for all the right reasons with all the right, animatedly sober people.

I was checking out the vintage parade ambience at the intersection of Orleans Avenue and Bayshore Boulevard. How refreshingly old school, I thought. Lemonade and not Bud Light. And who can’t see cotton candy and not hearken back to your childhood.

Then I peered down Bayshore and saw an elevated security cubicle, dubbed “Cops in a box.” I thought “Boston Marathon.” End of reverie.

I noted a colorful souvenir cart being pushed down Bayshore, several little tykes in its wake. It rolled past the funnel cake and Italian sausage concessions. It was soon overtaken by a notably sturdy-looking golf cart. Uniformed police officers were on board.

Its specific function was soon obvious. The words “bomb squad” said it all: The 2014 Gasparilla Children’s Parade – and the new normal.

Scott running mate

We will soon officially have a Hispanic male, Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera, as Rick Scott’s lieutenant governor. A precedent-setting choice. His ill-fated predecessor, of course, was a black female, Jennifer Carroll. A historic choice. And if Lopez-Cantera doesn’t work out? There’s always a white guy available.

Weather Center