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Florida’s lopsided Cuban embrace

Sunshine State is poised to benefit from thawing US-Cuba relations, but only in places where few Cubans live

January 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

The warming of U.S. relations with Cuba would appear to be uniquely good for Florida. It is the state closest to Cuba, with the country’s largest Cuban population and the longest history of trade and immigration with the island nation. But it also faces major obstacles in reviving this legacy.

Two cities, Miami and Tampa, show why. For one, uncompromising opposition in Miami, especially among elderly exiles with undying hatred for Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro, remains strong, although it is lessening among the younger generations. Eased travel restrictions have allowed Cuban-Americans to visit family on the island for some time now, but resistance continues: In April 2012 arsonists struck the Coral Gables office of Airline Brokers, the principal conduit for such travel. Many Miami politicians, including Sen. Marco Rubio, continue to strongly oppose improved relations.

On the other side of the state in Tampa resides a less well-known Cuban community with very different origins and long-held dreams of reopening relations with the island. Although both Tampa and Miami have large ports, prospects for business with Cuba are obstructed by a handful of powerful Cuban exiles who wield outsize political influence. It is thus other ports and cities with far less connection to Cuba that stand to reap the largest benefits of the countries’ changing relationship. 

Cuba, the third rail

Tampa’s ties to Cuba date to the late 19th century, during Cuba’s revolution against Spain. Insurgent cigarmakers and wealthy Cuban cigar manufacturers, lured by the city’s highly conservative trade board, established a unique, multiethnic industrial community. Cigars drove Tampa’s early growth, and cigarmakers accounted for the largest slice of the city’s workforce. They were politically radical and activist, waging bitter strikes in the cigar factories and staging huge May Day parades celebrating what they hoped would be the global victory of socialism.

They encountered resistance and occasional threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, dubbed the Cuckoo Klan. Factory owners colluded with local elites to defeat the workers and destroy their union. The Great Depression dealt a grave blow, sending almost half the workers back to Cuba or north to New York. Tampa’s cigar industry only partly recovered. The 1960 U.S. trade embargo was a death knell, curtailing supplies of Cuban tobacco and ending the circular migration that long had been Tampa’s economic and cultural lifeblood.

Fidel Castro’s revolution introduced many changes. Many Tampa Cubans opposed the dictator Fulgencio Batista and supported the rebellion. Some raised money and arms for the cause and celebrated Castro’s victory on New Year’s Day in 1959. Most Cubans fleeing the revolution went to Miami, but Tampa also received a sizable influx of exiles, whose politics were vastly different from those who arrived earlier. Supporters of Castro found themselves under attack: Anti-Castro exiles vandalized their organizations and homes, pouring red paint on walls and floors, scrawling slogans and giving names of alleged communists to the FBI, whose agents visited their employers and children’s schools. 

Even in Tampa, with its socialist roots and more than a century of Cuban immigration, an extremist minority has stifled the promise of better relations and a more prosperous future.

The subsequent political ascendancy of a new generation of Cubans in Tampa and Miami drove the ideas and aspirations of the older generation into the shadows. Many a private discussion still reflected hope for the success of the Cuban revolution, but outside those contexts, any hint of support for Cuba became the third rail of state and local politics. Florida’s electoral importance expanded that influence to national politics. Well into the 1990s, no Florida candidate would dare suggest a closer relationship with Cuba.

Uneven progress

What pushback exists has tended to get squashed. In 1998, Alberto Fox, a respected Democratic operative, frustrated by the difficulty of arranging for his elderly mother to visit her hometown in Cuba, formed the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, which has since organized scores of licensed trips to Cuba. His own trip convinced him Americans must see Cuba and judge for themselves if the embargo is justified. Trips arranged by his foundation have included a surprising number of conservative business interests and public officials — including Republican Sens. James Inhofe, Jeff Flake, Pat Roberts and Arlen Specter — who have quietly explored trade possibilities. In 2000 the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly voted to loosen restrictions on certain trade with Cuba.

In 2002, Fox arranged a semisecret visit by Tampa’s then-Mayor Dick Greco, a nominal Democrat who endorsed Jeb Bush for governor and George W. Bush for president. Although both brothers were ramping up opposition to Cuba, the pragmatic Greco, who was finishing his final term as mayor, believed economic prospects of a closer relationship between Tampa and Cuba outweighed the political risks.

Others in Tampa’s establishment were also willing to take the risk. Also on the trip were local politicians, business leaders, a banker, the president of a venerable conservative law firm, the chairman of Tampa’s Chamber of Commerce and the wife and daughter of a powerful local Republican. It was a successful trip. All who went were buoyed by the possibilities and eager to move forward. Greco contacted his friend Jeb Bush, who squashed his enthusiasm with menacing threats conveyed indirectly by a scary Cuban exile.

Greco’s failure to act in this pregnant moment collapsed the venture, with long-term consequences. Tampa still has not benefited much from the 2000 law, while New Orleans and Norfolk, Virginia, have scooped up much of the $5 billion in exports to Cuba since then. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, increasingly has sought better ties with Cuba, and Fox continues to arrange trips, but current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn refuses to go, maintaining that he will wait until Cuba’s government makes major changes.

While Tampa waits, St. Petersburg is moving ahead. That city has few Cuban descendants to influence politics there, and its port access and proximity to Cuba are essentially the same as Tampa’s. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is planning to visit, as are two commissioners from surrounding Pinellas County. Jacksonville, also home to few Cuban-Americans, has been seizing opportunities for trade with Cuba.

Florida is ultimately poised to take advantage of the new normal in U.S. relations with Cuba, but only in places where few Cubans live. Even in Tampa, with its socialist roots and more than a century of Cuban immigration, an extremist minority has managed to stifle the promise of better relations and a more prosperous future — another reason for Florida’s reputation as the stupidest state. 

Susan Greenbaum is a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida. She is the author of “More Than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa” and a newly released book about the Moynihan Report, “Blaming the Poor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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