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Tampa Cuba Panel Talks Policy Changes

Daylina Miller/WUSF


Cuba is less than one hundred miles from the southernmost tip of Florida, but for years, travel to there has been restricted.

At a recent event called “Cuba Forum – Tampa at the Forefront of Historic Change,” business owners and community leaders who have lobbied for better relations with the country met with U.S. Commerce officials.

The panels were hosted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa International Airport.

Participants discussed how Florida could be affected by recently relaxed travel and export policies with Cuba.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who represents Tampa and St. Petersburg, has lobbied for the federal government to lessen restrictions on travel to the island, and in December 2014, President Barack Obama announced eased travel and export restrictions.

"He, in essence, answered this community's call for change, re-establishing diplomatic relations, expanding travel opportunities and support for the Cuban people,” Castor said. “The Tampa community was central to the normalization of relations."

Many people think of Miami when they think about the relationship of Cuba to Florida. But before Miami, there was Ybor City.

Credit Daylina Miller/WUSF

“Here in Tampa, ties to Cuba run very deep,” said Penny Pritzker, Secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce. “Ties of culture and family, of trade and commerce. Your connections to Cuba date back centuries."

Pritzker says while Floridians still can't travel to Cuba as tourists, it's now much easier for Cuban-Americans to go there.

Travelers can get a general license in one of 12 categories that permits them to visit the island. They include visiting relatives, humanitarian work, and research and educational opportunities.

Despite the changes, the embargo is still in place. Castor says tourism is still not allowed but most people could fit their trip within the general license.

U.S.  travel agents can even book certain cruises for Americans under the "educational opportunities" category. One of these is Cuba Cruise's "People to People" cruise program offered in partnership with the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.

The New York-based non-profit works with leaders in the travel industry to lobby for change in laws restricting trade with Cuba.

"General tourism as we know it is not allowed but you fit within those 12 categories,” Castor said. “While it doesn't say tourism, they're still very broad and they provide a lot of leeway for your purpose in traveling."

She says restrictions on exports have also been eased, making it easier for U.S. businesses to sell goods in Cuba.

"Opening markets to more of our exports - that's your products - can play a critical role in boosting the economic security and incomes of America's middle class,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker says 275,00 Floridians work in jobs supported by exports. Those jobs pay up to 18 percent more than non-export jobs.

More jobs, export-related and otherwise, could be created by increased trade and travel.

Credit Daylina Miller/WUSF
Pictured is an image of the first flight Tampa International Airport added to Cuba in 2011.

Some jobs were created in 2011 when flights from Tampa International Airport were added to three Cuban cities. Since then, more than 175,000 people have flown there, generating about a million more dollars a year for the airlines.

The new general license also makes it easier for colleges to send students to Cuba for education and research.

Peter Hammerschmidt, an economics professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, wants to partner with the University of Havana.

"The Eckerd College is now in the process of establishing a relationship with the University of Havana where we're going to send marine science students there to study there and hopefully have a reciprocal opportunity for them to send professors and students our way,” Hammerschmidt said.

Business and community leaders said the changed policies are a step toward eventually lifting the embargo altogether. 

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