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More and more of Tampa goes to Cuba, but not Bob Buckhorn

TAMPA — When the University of Tampa baseball team flies home Sunday, it will be the latest group from here to travel to Cuba in the past three years.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce went, taking airport chief Joe Lopano and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft. Most of the Tampa City Council has gone, as has a Florida Orchestra quintet.

So has U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. On returning, she said, "Cuba is changing" and called for Washington to normalize relations, lift travel restrictions and end the 52-year-old trade embargo on Cuba.

But there's one Tampa leader you won't see on a flight to Havana any time soon: Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

"I'm not averse to business leaders going," he said, but "until that embargo is lifted, I don't think it's an appropriate place for the mayor of Tampa to be."

The reason, he said, is "first and foremost out of respect for people in this community who lost everything to (Fidel) Castro, some of whom spent years in Castro's prisons."

The embargo hasn't worked, Buckhorn said, but political changes must come to Cuba first.

"Implementation of democratic elections, more freedom, more ability to dissent, more religious freedoms will have to occur before the president or the Congress seriously takes a look at lifting that embargo," he said.

This puts Buckhorn slightly out of synch with a growing number of Tampa officials who support building relationships in Cuba to position the bay area for the day that trade and travel restrictions are lifted.

But the politics of Cuba don't end in Tampa. Buckhorn's political ambitions might not, either.

Last year, the Democrat waved off speculation about running against Gov. Rick Scott. For now, Buckhorn says he plans to run for a second term in 2015. Beyond that, he doesn't say much.

In a statewide race, Buckhorn's record on Cuba would help him in South Florida, said Tampa lawyer and anti-Castro activist Ralph Fernandez.

"A landslide" among Cuban-Americans, he predicts, even the Republicans.

Democratic political consultant Derek Newton is not as certain about the potency of South Florida's anti-Castro hardliners.

"The dog isn't as big as it used to be, but it still bites," said Newton, who works with the November Group in New York and Miami. Embracing engagement with Cuba is still unpopular, but not necessarily life-threatening, he said — and it's fading fast.

"This just isn't an issue that's on the front burner, except for a very small, very vocal group," he said. Plus, die-hard anti-Castro voters tend to be hard-core Republicans who wouldn't vote for a Democrat like Buckhorn anyway, he said.

• • •

Whatever his political future, Buckhorn's Cuba politics are nothing new.

In the mid 1990s, he flew with the group Brothers to the Rescue as it searched for Cuban rafters trying to escape to Florida.

In 2002, as a council member (and candidate for mayor), he criticized then-Mayor Dick Greco for going on an unannounced trip to Havana and meeting with Castro.

Greco said he didn't go to pursue trade, but in the hope of starting "any kind of dialogue that would start (Cuba) on the trail toward a more democratic society."

In 2012, on the 51st anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Buckhorn hosted a City Hall ceremony honoring those who fought, including retired U.S. Army Col. Orlando Rodriguez of Tampa.

And on Sunday, Buckhorn and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado are scheduled to honor longtime anti-Castro activist Mario Quevedo at the Cuban Civic Club.

People remember that kind of support, Fernandez said, and it pays off. During the mayor's race in 2011, activists reached out to Cuban-American voters, reminding them how Greco met with Castro.

"There were lists of drivers" to take voters to the polls, Fernandez said. And on the night of the primary, Buckhorn edged Greco out of the race by 383 votes, or less than 1 percent of the total.

• • •

During that mayor's race, questions about Tampa's relationship to Cuba came up often, and the five candidates staked out distinct positions.

One called for more agricultural exports through Tampa to Cuba under a limited exemption to the embargo.

Another said South Florida dictates U.S. policy toward Cuba, but the embargo would end if officials from Orlando and Tampa demanded it.

Buckhorn, for once, didn't talk about Castro. Instead, he charted a pragmatic course that, like everything else in his campaign, focused on business.

As mayor, he said, he would have limited political capital and time. So he wanted first to grow trade with Latin America's bigger, more established economies.

That's where the money is, and that's still his focus, he said.

"My time is far better spent in Panama trying to attract Copa Airlines to establish flights, doing the same in Colombia with Avianca," he said. "There is little value to me to go to Cuba."

More and more of Tampa goes to Cuba, but not Bob Buckhorn 01/17/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 11:06pm]
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