A Look Back at 2006: Cuba and Florida

A Look Back
TAMPA -

News of last week's landing of 25 Cuban migrants in Longboat Key has revived concern about Fidel Castro's death would affect Florida.

Incoming Governor Charlie Crist addressed the issue during a recent visit to Tampa.

CRIST: You're always concerned and you want to make sure you channel that concern into preparation - and that's exactly what Florida has done. Every time we have a scenario - whether it's a natural disaster like a hurricane or the impending death of Fidel Castro - it's going to happen inevitably - we just don't know when - the best scenario is to be as prepared as we possibly can. Fortunately, Florida and the federal government are working very hard to be as prepared as possible.

And outgoing Governor Jeb Bush says he expects more Cubans to try the perilous journey across the Florida Straits with hope of a better life.

BUSH: If you were a Cuban living on the island of Cuba today, where there is no hope, no freedom, where your family basically lived a subsistence life, you would want to leave too, I'm not surprised.

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 just 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 preparing 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 medical, agricultural and food products to Cuba. A landmark agreement was reached to ship cattle through Port Manatee. But no shipments were ever 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 and some staff, basically to get our foot in the door and let Al-Import, the company that handles import and exports for Cuba, know about Port Manatee and its facilities, but that contact was a one-time-only deal and meant to establish some relations.

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

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

But there's much more going on 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 no 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 Castro's health remains as unclear as what will happen to Florida when he's gone.

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