Future of Cuba-Florida Relations Up in the Air

Future of Cuba
TAMPA -

They may be dancing in the streets of Little Havana over Fidel Castro's possible demise, but the wall between Cuba and the U.S. is standing fast. As news comes of Castro's deteriorating health, speculation is running rampant over what the future will hold.

But some observers of the island nation are sounding a cautious note. Kirby Jones is president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association. The non-profit group promotes the normalization of commercial relations between the two countries.

JONES: I don't think in the short-term you're going to see any visible change. And I think even in the longer term - I'm talking months here - I think the people who are in charge of that government are going to follow the same path that's being followed today.

His group has pressed to end the trade embargo because other nations are getting a head-start on cutting deals with the Cuban government. Still, Jones believes the U.S. has built-in advantages.

JONES: I think it's an advantage of being a very close market and a natural market. We have natural advantages by geographical locations, and I think we' ve seen that in the trend of the purchase of agricultural products, which has served both countries very well.

Agriculture is one area that Florida businesses are prepairing to exploit - should the embargo's walls come tumbling down.

Congress passed a law six years ago that allowed U.S. companies to sell limited goods such as medical, agricultural and food products to Cuba. A landmark agreement was reached to ship cattle through Port Manatee. But no shipments were every made.

Port spokesman Steve Hollister says to date, the port has made only two shipments to Cuba in 2003 - of animal feed supplement.

HOLLISTER: We conducted a trade mission in 2003 to Cuba with our port authority chairman, some staff, basically to get our foot in the door and let Al-Import, the company that handles import and export know about Port Manatee and its facilities, but that contact was a one-time only deal and meant to establish some relations.

Still the port advertises itself as the closest port to Havana. And Hollister says they're keeping a sharp eye on the situation. The same goes for it's close neighbor to the north, the Port of Tampa.

FOBES: The port of Tampa has geographical advantages for doing business with Cuba. It's only 307 nautical miles from Havana, and Tampa's ties to Cuba can be traced back to the port's opening, with cattle shipments that began in the mid-1850s.

Tampa Port Authority spokesman Andy Fobes says by the 1950s, there were 12 cargo sailings every month between Tampa and Cuban ports. He says if the political situation changes, the port is well situated to take advantage once again.

Florida would stand to benefit more than any state for three reasons - a historic link to Cuba, the state's close proximity to Cuba and large and growing Hispanic population.

So writes Tim Lynch, an economics professor at Florida State University. He has written that tree trade with Cuba could generate $50 billion nationally over 20 years. And more than 100,000 jobs in Florida would be created over that time.

But there's much more going on emotionally when it comes to the personal ties many Floridians have with the island.

As Tampa's mayor, Dick Greco led a mission to Cuba. He personally met with Castro for more than five hours. Greco says the island's current leadership would not doubt continue Castro's policies. But he says change would be a godsend for many people trapped by the poverty of communism.

GRECO: There would be so many things that Tampa could benefit from if that ever opened up - so could the rest of the country. But those who could benefit the most and what was most important to me were not the dollars you might get. It's to make those people have a life in the future. To give them hope. To give them things many of them don't understand now.

But for now, the status of the 'Bearded One' is unclear, and has yet to fade from history.

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