Kathy Castor calls diplomatic breakthrough “The most historic change in our lifetime when it comes to Cuba”

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Today’s blockbuster announcement that the U.S. will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century has been met with mixed emotions across Florida, but perhaps no member of Congress is more ecstatic about the breakthrough than Tampa Democratic Representative Kathy Castor.

“It was the Tampa community, the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa International Airport, the small businesses, and Cuban families who spurred on this change,” Castor told a group of reporters who gathered at her local district office in West Tampa Wednesday afternoon.

Castor visited the Communist island back in April of 2013, and afterwards became one of the highest ranking Florida politicians ever to call for the end of the five-decade plus long U.S. economic embargo against the Castro-led government. Other local business groups and lawmakers from Tampa have also made the trek to Cuba over the past few years.

Today’s announcement was highlighted by the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who had been held in a Cuban prison for over five years and was said to be in exceedingly bad health. His release was negotiated in exchange for three Cuban intelligence operatives who had spent more than a decade in U.S. prisons.

Although there have been activists, diplomats and former diplomats who have advocated for years if not decades for the U.S. to end the sanctions and reestablish relations, the movement has crystalized in Tampa over the past couple of years. Castor’s congressional district and surrounding areas include over 100,000 Cuban-Americans, and unlike the South Florida Cuban exile community, has generally looked on more favorably to improving relations.

“The number one issue we deal with in this congressional office is Cuban family reunification,” the Tampa Democrat said. “Whether it’s the grandmother who needs to travel here to visit a sick grandchild, or the brother and sister that need a bone marrow match, or simply being able to attend a 15-year old’s birthday party. There’s been so much bureaucratic red tape, and now that red tape will go away.”

Shortly after President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, his administration eased restrictions to allow Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the island. In 2011 his policy changes allowed students, academics and religious organizations to more freely request a trip to Cuba, as well as “specific licensing for a greater scope of journalistic activities.” In addition, people in the U.S. were allowed to send up to $500 in remittances to Cuba every three months, or a maximum of $2000 a year.

A White House official said the policy changes today include a “number of steps to significantly increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.” But the travel restrictions themselves have not been removed, something even hardline anti-Cuban activists like Ralph Fernandez in Tampa have said they now support.

Speaking of Fernandez, there has been significant pushback by lawmakers who vehemently disagree with making nice with the Raoul Castro-led Cuban government.

Florida Republicans and (possible presidential candidates) Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio commanded the most attention with their critical remarks.

“The Obama Administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President, and another dramatic overreach of his executive authority,” wrote Bush on his Facebook page. “It undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba.”

Rubio called Obama’s move today “inexplicable,” and said in a statement that “I intend to use my role as incoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee to make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”

Castor acknowledged the Cuban government’s poor record on human rights, but said the U.S. has had worse relations with other countries in the past and now makes trade deals with them.

“There is no question that the Cuban government has been repressive and jails protesters from time to time, but America is always strongest when we engage and have a direct dialogue, not when we isolate countries. Just to put it in context, since the Cuban embargo and the isolationist policies have been in place, we’ve had a war with Vietnam. We’ve gone through a horrendous war where we lost around tens of thousands of lives, but yet we’ve been able to normalize relations and turn the page.”

The next step in fully establishing relations with Cuba would be to end the economic sanctions. That action would need to come from Congress, not the president. When asked if she believes there is sufficient sentiment in Washington to do that, Castor said that she couldn’t predict such an outcome but believes the diplomatic breakthrough “puts us on a path to lifting the embargo.”

Along with ending the sanctions, there has also been effort for decades to have Cuba removed from the list of terrorist-supporting nations.

Cuba has been on that list since 1982, and remains so according to the State Department, because it has “publicly opposed” the U.S.-led war on terror and maintains friendly relationships with other state sponsors of terrorism. But in 1998, a comprehensive review by the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Cuba does not pose a threat to U.S. national security. Today Obama said he has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. “This review will be guided by the facts and the law,” he said. “A nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.”

Kerry said that he would travel to Cuba at some point in the future. “I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba,” he said in a statement.

The NY Times reported today that the American government has spent $264 million over the last 18 years, much of it through the development agency, in an effort to spur democratic change in Cuba.

“We’re looking for places to cut the budget and eliminate waste?” she asked. “There will be a lot of that surreptitious use of dollars. Some slush funds that hopefully we can put to better use. Maybe building the embassy.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.