q&a: Florida’s new face in Cuba politics

Kathy Castor is a new phenomenon in Florida politics: The representative from Tampa is increasingly outspoken in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba. The chamber of commerce in Tampa, and port and airport officials have been pressing the Democrat to help them seek openings in trade and travel with Cuba. She responded, and her positioning has produced many “firsts.” Tampa International Airport this winter season hosts 11 weekly flights to Cuba, turning Tampa into a major U.S. hub for Cuba travel. In April, she became the first sitting Florida Congressperson since 1959 to visit Cuba. Since returning from the trip, she has been pressing the Obama Administration to lift the travel ban, to take Cuba off the State Department’s “state sponsors of terrorism” list, and to sit down with Cuba for bilateral talks. Ultimately, she says, she wants to see the embargo tackled as well. Responding to President Obama’s remarks in Miami last week, she sent him a letter Nov. 15, encouraging him to “take a fresh and more ‘in depth’ look at the next steps in U.S. policy toward Cuba.” Cuba Standard editor Johannes Werner sat down with Castor at her Capitol Hill offices this week.

Q. Please explain your position in regards to the U.S. travel ban.

I am opposed to the travel ban for a number of reasons. I think it’s an infringement upon the Constitutional rights of American citizens to travel. You can travel anywhere else in the world — Iran, Syria and other countries on the “state sponsors of terrorism” list. To bar our freedom and ability to travel, I think, is wrong and short-sighted. I also oppose it because, if we were to lift the travel ban, then my community, the Tampa Bay community, would benefit greatly. Already, after I pressed the president to open people-to-people travel, family travel and remittances, we have seen all sorts of entrepreneurs in the Tampa Bay area grow, whether it’s the charter flights, or the folks who work there, shops at the airport have told me their business has grown because of the traffic, or travel agents in Tampa. I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I am really trying to encourage our local tourism entities to become better organized to market the Tampa Bay area as the gateway to Cuba — come to Ybor City, spend a few days there in advance to the trip. In fact, I’ve talked to a few of the folks with licenses and the Tampa airport to create a bigger business opportunity.

Q. You have co-sponsored a bill that would expand the relative freedom to travel from Cuban Americans to all U.S. citizens and residents. What’s the status of that bill?

It’s unlikely right now that the Congress would vote to overturn the travel ban, mainly because of some very well-placed members who oppose anything that would change the relationship with Cuba. Because it would be so difficult to get the Congress to act, I think our best hope is presidential action, granting a general license. Here in Congress, it may take a little time, but we’re not going to give up. The best hope right now is to work with the Administration, to encourage them to broaden travel opportunities. This will create jobs in my community. It will help push Cuba towards greater openness — we’ve already seen it with small businesses. We have got to recognize what’s happening 90 miles away.

Q. You have been a cheerleader in the expansion of U.S. flights to Cuba. Tampa has benefitted particularly; there are now 11 weekly flights this winter season.

They say the busy time is the winter holidays, so they’ll be really full…

Q. What does this mean to Tampa?

First of all, this means a better way of life for the people I represent — Cuban Americans and their families who used to have to go to Miami at great cost and often at great inconvenience to see their loved ones. That’s the most fundamental meaning.  Those are the stories we hear every day in my office in Tampa — families wanting to see each other, whether it’s the dying grandma, just the family situation. The second is jobs and economic growth. In my community I think the airport is just a start. One day, it will be the Port of Tampa. We’re building those business relationships now, as far as U.S. law will allow us to go. I was heartened by President Obama’s words last week in Miami. He said some positive things. I wrote a letter to him last week, just commending him for being a little more open; his verbiage was a bit more encouraging. I am hopeful that this is a sign of evolution.

Q. Do you see the executive moving towards easing some more?

I don’t see them doing that yet. I’m not very satisfied where we are right now, but I think that is our best hope. Last week, the Center for Democracy in the Americas presented Cuban cuentapropistas [in Washington]. This is an impressive group. There was Julio Torres and his wife — he used to work for the state, but now he has his own tourism business, Nostalgicar. He fixes classic cars and rents them to tourists, I thought that was great. Then, there was the young woman who will decorate for parties. She was a university professor; she is young, ready to go, and likes to be part of the family. We had a frank conversation whether the state is really changing. They said it’s very well planned out, but it’s not perfect. They don’t have all the freedom in the world. They may have another idea, but if it’s not on the list of approved businesses, they can’t do it.

Q. Further openings on the U.S. side will help these businesspeople in Cuba?

Absolutely. We know, from our own community, that tourists are supporting businesses, and then businesses grow. It’s going to be the same in Cuba. It’s just a shame that the United States is not more engaged right now. In Europe, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had so many economic ties and exchanges, and we were able to build on those to bring the Wall down. I think the same logic would apply here.

Q. On the U.S. side there are business opportunities as well, but they are facing obstacles. For example, there hasn’t been any significant trade through the Port of Tampa in the past few years…

Yes, it’s very unfortunate, because there is a space. There’s a space in agriculture. Everybody is telling me there’s an opportunity in telecom. There is the Internet, but it’s really difficult to have an exchange. We’ve seen what the democratization of the Internet has meant to business in America. This would be a great step forward in Cuba. In Tampa, we’ve got some of the most innovative companies when it comes to telecom. Right now, that’s legal, under the embargo, if you do it right.

Q. Medical companies in Tampa are looking at Cuba …

You bet. We are now a capital for health innovation in Tampa, thanks to the Moffitt cancer center, to the University of South Florida. The president of USF, when she was traveling to Cuba with the chamber of commerce, was interested in what they are doing.

Interest in Cuban biotech: Castor during her visit in Havana

Q. At least three entrepreneurs are trying to establish ferry service from Florida. They have been applying for U.S. licenses, they’re getting rejected, and now they’re waiting.

Ferries are quite analogous to charter airplanes. What’s so different about them, except that families would be able to bring more supplies to their relatives? I think it makes a great deal of sense. They existed in the past, and it would be a great step forward for the Tampa Bay area. I’ve pressed the Administration on this, and I will continue to do so. Because I don’t see how they’ll be able to deflect the logic of how they are essentially similar to air charter.

Q. How did you assist the ferry entrepreneurs?

I supported them with the Administration, talked to Administration officials. And when I was in Cuba, I encouraged [Cuban officials], because they aren’t sure about it. They told me they [first] wanted to see how the charter flights go.

Q. Cuba’s Mariel port and export development zone mega-project — can you comment?

I think it’s an opportunity for the Cuban people, particularly because they want to grow and modernize. But what will really hold them back from realizing Mariel’s potential is the embargo. I think the best course of action for the two countries would be to sit down and begin to talk through many issues, whether it’s migration or the oil spill talks they’re holding right now. But the major issue is trade. We really need to sit down and modernize the entire relationship. [Mariel] is the best example. It’s actually a place where the U.S. has some leverage, because the Cubans would like nothing more than the embargo to go away. So it could be a terrific opportunity to press ahead on human rights and the continued modernization of their economy.

Q. Two of the biggest obstacles to detente are the Alan Gross case and the Cuban Five…

Again, this could be an area of dialogue for the countries. The continued detainment of Alan Gross is not serving the Cuban modernization cause very well. But certainly they could sit down and talk. It’s an unfortunate stalemate. I was disappointed; when I traveled to Cuba I asked to see Alan Gross, and they declined.

Q. Are the Cuban Five on your radar screen?

Aren’t we down to four?

Q. OK, the Cuban Four, then…

Not as much as the economic issues and travel, and Cuban American families being able to go back and forth.

Q. You traveled to Cuba in April. This was a first for a sitting Congressperson from Florida. How do you feel about it now? Did you get any backlash?

I did a little bit, but my community is very supportive of turning the page on the Cold War past. This is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s visit to Tampa, before he was assassinated. That’s about as long as we’ve been living with the embargo. The Cold War [has ended] in most places of the world, except 90 miles from Florida. It’s time, and my community is very supportive of that. The families I represent certainly don’t have great faith in Fidel Castro, but they understand there’s a new generation of leadership. Based on what we’re seeing now — small business owners and changes the government is doing — we need to change.

Q. What kind of messages do you get from your constituents?

Most of it is very positive and encouraging to continue to press the Obama Administration to make change, lift the travel ban, how the embargo simply doesn’t make sense in this day and age when we’re trading with all nations across the globe, how it’s outlived its usefulness. They kind of look askew at the Congress — on so many things [laughs] — and this is another point on their list.

Q. What did you take home from Cuba — is there anything that changed in your views?

Sarah Stephens and the Center for Democracy in the Americas tried to provide a very educational fact-finding tour from a variety of perspectives, so that I could have my official visits dealing with tourism, environmental policy, foreign relations, but also meet the journalists in Cuba. I enjoyed that very much.

Q. Foreign correspondents?

Yes, and meet with some of the small business owners, and some academics. I heard things that are consistent [with what I hear] in my hometown — ‘Gosh, these policies are so outdated, they do not reflect the current changes going on in Cuba, please help and work on it.’ I look forward to going back, because it was a quick snapshot. But my best education has been with the Cuban Americans that I represent.

Q. Is Tampa emerging as a counterweight to Miami in Florida, when it comes to things Cuban?

There’s probably something to it. But Miami is changing as well. Many of the business leaders [in Miami] are right where the folks in Tampa are. The political mood is shifting a little bit.

Q. How do you relate to Joe Garcia, the new representative from Miami? He is a fellow Democrat, and he is backing the Obama Administration’s family visit policy.

Oh yes. When dissidents from Cuba travel here to Capitol Hill, it’s important that we’re all there, no matter what our views are. We have these sit-downs; we had one with Yoani Sánchez. There was Ileana [Ros-Lehtinen], Mario [Diaz-Balart] and Kathy, and there was Bill Nelson, all ready to interact with her.

Q. How do your interactions with Cuba reflect on your interactions with Florida’s congressional delegation? Is this an issue that’s splitting the Florida delegation?

It’s not personal. I think that, whether it’s Miami or members of Congress [from other Florida areas], they understand that I reflect my community. I understand that they reflect theirs. It’s really not personal.

Q. What’s next in regards to Cuba?

I’m glad you asked. I sent a letter to the President last week. With what the President said in Miami, I am hopeful that the Administration will be a little more open to sitting down and having a dialogue. No harm in doing that. [Barack Obama] is not running again, so I’m going to be encouraging the President, the Secretary of State and the Administration to do more. It looks like we’re headed to success on oil spill response; I have to say I’m rather happy they didn’t find oil off the coast of Cuba, I think tourism is their economic future. Hopefully, there will be another trip. I hope the [Greater Tampa] Chamber of Commerce intends to go back. Encouraging Florida policymakers as well — there are some state laws that don’t make any sense, like what some universities and counties can do [with Cuba]. And then, hopefully, one day getting to the larger issue of the embargo.

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