Tampa Chamber hosts learning trip to Cuba

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After nearly 50 years of a U.S. economic embargo, the City of Tampa is hoping to restore ties with Cuba, beginning with an official trip to Florida’s closest Caribbean neighbor.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce recently sponsored a 38-person delegation of business and civic leaders, who returned Sunday from a historic visit in Cuba. Their mission was to help Tampa become a major travel hub between Cuba and the U.S.

The group toured the island nation from May 29 to June 2, with a goal of a deeper understanding of Cuba’s social, living and economic conditions. During the trip, they toured several cultural and historic sites, including Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cuban Institute of Music, Santo Angel Neighborhood, and the Cuban Chamber of Commerce. 

One of the highlights if the Cuban trip was interacting with local residents and leaders. Many of the Cubans told them they last visited Tampa more than 50 years ago, prior to the embargo. They took the opportunity give them a better picture of the changes in 21st century Tampa, as well as its deep historical association with Cuba.

This trip, unthinkable a decade ago, is the result of the easing of restrictions in the 48-year-old embargo against Cuba. A slight relaxation by the U.S. government has allowed bilateral trade to spread rapidly, with Florida and its Cuban population, having the most to gain.

According to the 2010 Census, nearly one in four Floridians are Hispanic, and the state’s population of Cuban-Americans has reached 1.2 million. In addition, Cuban-Americans make up almost 5 percent of Tampa residents.

“Tampa is the historic US gateway to Cuba, and we have over 90,000 Cuban-Americans living in our region. This trip was a first step in rebuilding those ties,” says Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

“It also ties directly to years of hard work with Congresswoman Kathy Castor’s office and Tampa International Airport to re-establish flights to Cuba,” Rohrlack adds.

The delegation toured Cuba through a program called “People-to-People” by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Members get a license to travel to the island, as a means of enhancing cross-cultural relations between Cubans and Americans.

Chamber members say the Cuba visit will help them develop a strategy for future economic relations and help Tampa International Airport make Tampa the gateway for Americantravel to Cuba. TIA recently began offering flights to both Havana and Holguin.

Travelers interested in visiting Cuba can see TIA’s newly launched website www.gotocuba.org.  The Chamber posts regular updates on efforts to build commercial ties with Cuba at www.tampachamber.com/cuba.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.