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Cuban consulate possibility divides Miami, Tampa officials
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Cuban consulate possibility divides Miami, Tampa officials

This Tuesday, July 21, 2015 photo shows the Villa Paula in Miami. Villa Paula, named for the wife of Domingo Milord, the Cuban consul to Miami, was built in the mid-1920s by the Cuban government, as its consulate, with Cuban workers and all materials imported from Cuba. The building is presently undergoing renovations, and reconditioning the original windows, doors and Cuban tiles by its present owners. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

MIAMI (AP) — Now that Cuba has an embassy again in Washington, D.C., consulates could be coming to serve its people, most of whom live in Florida. Miami and Tampa have the closest historical ties to the island, but they have very different things to say about the idea.

Officials in Miami want no part of a consulate. Their politically powerful Cuban-American population is heavily influenced by those who fled Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution and have campaigned against the Castros for five decades since then, sometimes violently.

Tampa’s smaller and politically weaker Cuban-American community was formed generations earlier — by people who left the island during the era of the Spanish-American War of 1898, which led to Cuba’s independence from Spain. And Tampa’s leadership sees the opening of relations with Cuba as an economic opportunity, thinking a consulate would enhance Tampa’s position.

Consulates are an embassy’s branch offices, providing passport and visa services and emergency aid to visiting Cuban citizens, as well as other resources to U.S. citizens interested in Cuba.

Havana has made no official announcement about future consulates, but Cuban diplomat Jose Ramon Cabanas, who has run the Cuban Interests Section, now once again an Embassy, said recently that Cubans in the U.S. have said they need services outside Washington.

Before the rupture of diplomatic ties in 1961, Cuba had consulates in both Miami and Tampa.

Today, Miami-Dade County is home to almost a million Cubans, the largest concentration in the country and second only to Havana in the world. Tampa’s Hillsborough County has about 70,000, Florida’s No. 2 concentration.

Where to put one now?

Cabanas noted in an interview with Univision that most Cubans in the U.S. live “in South Florida, and the majority of them in Miami-Dade.”

“The practical reasons indicate Miami as the place to be,” said Sebastian Arcos, a spokesman for Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute in suburban Miami. “Most Cubans who are in need of consular services would definitely reside here in Miami, but there are political implications that make it complicated.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — who opposed President Barack Obama’ decision to restore ties — is among numerous Miami politicians opposing a consulate. Two other Cuban-American congressmen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, are also against it, and Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado is also strongly opposed.

They have their reasons. Many Cuban-Americans in Miami fled the Castro revolution or are descended from those who did; some have relatives who died opposing it or had property seized.

The city has become home to anti-Castro Cuban-American groups ever since, from those involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion to the Brothers to the Rescue group, whose members were killed when their small planes were shot down trying to drop leaflets over the island. Many believe the Cuban Five spy ring, which infiltrated anti-Castro groups in the 1990s, enabled Cuban fighter jets to destroy the Cessnas.

“A Cuban consulate is a headquarters for espionage, so I don’t know what city thinks of that as a badge of honor,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The Cuban government apparently no longer has buildings in either city that it could easily reoccupy.

In Miami, the imposing architecture of Villa Paula still stands on the city’s North Miami Avenue as a reminder of Cuba’s strong diplomatic presence in the U.S. before the Castro brothers came to power. It was built in the 1920s to house the Cuban consulate, but closed and sold in the 1930s, for reasons unrelated to the revolution. After changing hands several times, is now being renovated to become an art gallery.

If a consulate is opened only in Tampa, Cuban-Americans in Miami who need to handle some bureaucracy would need to make an eight-hour round-trip drive across the Everglades’ Alligator Alley. The likelihood of all-day or overnight trips makes the idea even more attractive to the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which is leading efforts to attract a consulate.

Bob Rohrlack, the chamber’s president and CEO, said Tampa can boast cultural connections with Cuba from the time of Jose Marti, who fought for Cuban independence against Spain and lived in the city in the late 1800s while working on his revolutionary plan. Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood once boasted 200 Cuban cigar factories, and is the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich.

The city’s port also has been much more aggressive about courting Cuban business than Miami’s, and Tampa’s “long historic friendship” with Cuba makes them the best option, Rohrlack said. He predicts that a community’s attitude will have a big impact on any decision.

“Have they been antagonistic or have they been cooperative?” he said. “We have a clean record.”

Tampa would expect some economic impact with businesses catering to those in need of the consulate, like the airport and transportation, but no formal study has been made, Rohrlack said.

“We’re a long way from anything happening with the consulate,” he said. “We’re just making sure we have our stake in the ground.”

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