By STEVE HUETTEL | St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
But Mayor Pam Iorio says she will not join them, though she is a member of the port’s governing board.
TAMPA - With permission from the federal government in hand, Tampa Port Authority officials are gearing up for a trade trip to Cuba, and it may happen as soon as next month.
The agency wants to talk with Cuban officials about shipping agricultural products they buy from Tampa Bay area companies through Tampa instead of other Florida ports.
The agency hasn’t set a date or decided who will make the trip, said port counsel Dale Bohner. But Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a member of the port’s governing board, said Wednesday she’s not interested in going.
“The port should explore trade and travel opportunities there, but it’s not the role for the mayor at this time,” she said.
Anti-Castro groups and two City Council members criticized then-Mayor Dick Greco last year for leading a delegation of business and civic leaders on a four-day trip to Cuba that included a meeting with Castro.
One of the most vocal critics, Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez, said Wednesday that sending a local delegation on the heels of a recent crackdown on Cuban dissidents would be a mistake. He noted that the European Union this month announced unprecedented diplomatic sanctions against Cuba.
“The timing could not be more embarrassing or poorer,” Fernandez said. “It would be an affront to the freedom-loving world.”
Congress voted in 2000 to ease the trade embargo and allow U.S. companies to sell certain food and agricultural products to Cuba on a cash-only basis.
Cuba bought $138.6-million in goods last year, said John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Sales are projected to increase nearly 20 percent to $166-million this year, he said.
Tampa port officials skipped a major food and agricultural expo in Havana last fall, dismissing Cuba as an insignificant trading partner.
But after learning that local companies with contracts from Cuba were shipping products through Jacksonville, the port’s governing board directed its staff to explore Cuba’s potential.
In February, the chairman of Cuba’s government-owned buyer of food and agricultural products invited Greco and executives of the port and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce to visit and discuss rebuilding traditional trading ties.
The port authority applied in March to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for a travel license. But federal officials held up the request, saying the port asked for a different kind of license than had been granted to similar agencies.
The license was quietly approved last month for a trip no longer than one week. The visit must be completed by Sept. 6.
Port officials asked to send a delegation that included Bohner, the port counsel; port director George Williamson; port board chairman Joseph Diaz; Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Frank; Louis Ricard of Cargill Inc.; and Joe Guidry, the editorial page editor of the Tampa Tribune.
But the license covers only paid employees of the port authority who specialize in agricultural marketing and sales. Diaz and Frank are not paid for serving on the port board. Bohner said he will contact Treasury Department officials to clarify who can travel under the license.
The port counsel also said he expects to plan the trip next week with Williamson, who was in Mexico this week on a trade mission with Tampa chamber economic development officials.