While other states have begun looking for ways to expand trade with Cuba, Florida's elected officials still steadfastly oppose easing relations.
The Cuba Factor
Politics and Cuba
A number of businesses in Florida are exploring Cuba, even as hard-liners in the Legislature move to create more obstacles.
When President Obama announced on Dec. 17 that the United States would begin to re-establish diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement within minutes saying it welcomed the move. “We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits,” U.S. Chamber President Tom Donohue said.
The next day, the Florida Chamber of Commerce issued its own statement pronouncing itself “very disappointed” with the president’s actions. “The Florida Chamber has a long-standing position opposing normalizing relations with Cuba,” Florida Chamber President Mark Wilson said. “And as long as there is a dictator that won’t recognize democracy, freedom and free enterprise as a path toward a better life, our position will remain the same.”
The different reactions from two business-lobbying groups that represent many of the same companies — AT&T, State Farm and Allstate have executives on the boards of both groups — illustrate the unique sensitivity of Cuba in Florida politics. And they are a reminder of the power wielded in Florida by a relatively small group of Cuban-American politicians who loathe the Castro regime — or at least continue to find it a useful political football — from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to more than half a dozen members of the state Legislature.
The result is that while other states have begun looking for ways to expand trade with Cuba following the president’s announcement — Missouri sent a delegation of state officials and business leaders to the country in March — Florida’s elected leaders appear even more likely to fight similar efforts within its own borders.
“That’s definitely not something the governor or I would support,” says Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R-Miami).
While Florida’s congressional delegation has long served as the backbone that holds the Cuban embargo in place, the state Legislature has a long history of pushing tighter restrictions.
Three years ago, for instance, the Florida Legislature passed a law designed to prevent new government contracts for Odebrecht Construction because its parent company, Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht S.A., did business in Cuba, including the nearly $1 billion expansion of the Port of Mariel. Odebrecht sued, and the law was ruled unconstitutional by an appeals court, a suit which cost the Florida Department of Transportation more than half a million dollars in legal fees.
In 2008, the Legislature passed a law imposing new restrictions on Florida tour operators selling trips to Cuba and other countries deemed “terrorist states” by the federal government. The measure substantially raised registration fees and forced tour operators to posts bonds of up to $250,000 — 10 times higher than the bonds required of other tour operators. That law, too, was declared unconstitutional after it was challenged by ABC Charters of Miami.
Still on the books is a 2006 law that prohibited Florida universities from using public money to send researchers to terrorist states, which Cuba is considered. The law, which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to stand in 2012, has been widely criticized by Florida university administrators and professors, who have labeled it “enforced ignorance” and note that universities in other states can conduct research in Cuba. “It is damaging,” says Arthur F. Kirk Jr., president of Saint Leo University, a private university north of Tampa that has sent two delegations to Cuba since the law was passed. “You have people in the State University System who have devoted their lives to study and research … and this compromises their ability to do what the state of Florida pays them to do and they do very well.”
While the Obama administration is loosening restrictions in Washington, some Cuban-American legislators in Tallahassee are now talking about imposing new ones. “If the federal government is not willing to stand up for the freedom of the people of Cuba, then we’re going to have to do everything we can in the state of Florida to stand up for what’s right,” says Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami).
Cuban-American lawmakers say they won’t support normalization until Cuba makes fundamental human rights changes, including releasing political prisoners, allowing for free elections and permitting an independent press. Supporters of ending the embargo counter that the United States trades with other countries that also restrict human rights, including China and Saudi Arabia — a country that last year beheaded at least 19 people on charges that included “magic and sorcery,” according to the group Human Rights Watch.
“The difference is it’s in our hemisphere. The difference is we have citizens of our country who lost everything to that country, to those brothers, including mine (family),” Lopez-Cantera says.
Indeed, Cuba remains a raw, emotional issue for many Cuban-American lawmakers, some of whom come from families whose fortunes fell during the Cuban Revolution. The most famous personal connection may be that of U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and his brother, former U. S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Their father was once the brother-in-law to Fidel Castro and was a high-ranking official in the Cuban government that Castro overthrew.
Some pro-embargo lawmakers have a reputation for retaliating against others who push for more trade with Cuba. Bill Carlson, president of Tucker/Hall, a publicrelations firm in Tampa, says the Tampa Chamber of Commerce was planning a trip to Cuba several years ago when Marco Rubio was Speaker of the Florida House. Carlson says Rubio began contacting chamber board members and threatened to block funding and legislation that was important to the Tampa region if the chamber went through with the trip. The trip was canceled.
Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon would not directly address the incident but said in a prepared statement that “those who support enriching the Castro regime with more American dollars have never been shy about sharing their theories and false claims about Marco Rubio’s motivations and efforts on this issue.
“He is simply passionate about the cause of bringing freedom and democracy to all people around the world, especially the Cubans that live just 90 miles away from the U.S.”
But there are signs of a generational divide in attitudes toward Cuba, with younger Cuban-Americans taking a less hard-line stance. A poll conducted last year by Florida International University found that 52% of Cuban-American respondents in Miami-Dade were opposed to continuing the U.S. embargo of Cuba — a figure that rose to 62% among Cuban-Americans between ages 18 and 29. Cuban- American support for the embargo was at 87% in 1991. Those who left Cuba after 1994 were more likely than those who arrived in the U.S. earlier to oppose continuing the embargo and to support a dialogue among exiles, dissidents and the Cuban government. More recent Cuban immigrants were also more likely to favor the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States.
“Just like in Cuba, things have changed here,” says Pedro Freyre, a partner in Akerman Senterfitt’s Miami office and chair of the firm’s international practice. “It’s no longer a given that the Miami enclave is going to be a unified block in dealing with Cuba. It’s now open for discussion.”
Meanwhile, other parts of the state are beginning to more openly explore ties with Cuba. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce in March unanimously passed a resolution urging the federal government to establish a Cuban consulate in Tampa. (Days later, the Florida Legislature began advancing a memorial condemning President Obama’s actions on Cuba and urging the government not to put a Cuban consulate anywhere in Florida.) Orlando’s chamber of commerce has organized a pair of recent trips to Cuba. And in Pensacola, the accounting and consulting firm Saltmarsh, Cleveland & Gund was organizing a delegation of northwest Florida business leaders that was expected to visit Cuba in mid-April.
Still, the influence of embargo hard-liners won’t wane anytime soon in Florida.
For the next four years, there will be few people in Tallahassee more powerful than state Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes. The 42-year-old CEO of Oliva Cigar is in just his second full term in the state House. But he has already secured enough pledges to become Speaker of the House for the 2018-20 term. And Oliva’s feelings about doing business with Cuba are clear.
“Any American company that does business with Cuba is doing business directly with the Castro brothers. And what we have learned over 50 years is that the Castro brothers use those dollars to maintain their oppressive mechanism over the people of Cuba,” Oliva says. “Therefore, it’s very simple to conclude that more money, by way of business with Cuba, is more dollars by which the Cuban government can oppress. To me, it’s that simple.”