(Updated) In a speech to the Cuba-Democracy PAC last Friday in Miami, recorded by the Shark Tank blog, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio bashed Americans who have obtained visas and traveled to Cuba in recent years.
"These trips, [visitors] traveling to Cuba. Look, God bless them, I know they mean well. But I have people come to me all the time and tell me, 'Oh, I went to Cuba. What a beautiful place, I feel so bad for the people,'" Rubio said. "Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering. Cuba is not a field trip. I don't take that stuff lightly. You just went to Cuba and to fulfill your curiosity — which I could've told you about if you'd come seen me for five minutes — you've left thousands of dollars in the hands of a government that uses that money to control these people that you feel sorry for."
Although the U.S. Department of the Treasury still requires travel to Cuba to be "purposeful," you no longer have to be a journalist or pursuing a degree program to visit, thanks to policy changes made by the Obama administration back in 2010. The policy changes opened up access for more Americans to travel to Cuba, and played a part in more U.S. airports (like Tampa's) being able to host direct flights to the country.
But not everyone can just go to Expedia.com and purchase a ticket to Havana, though there are a number of advocates fighting to eliminate such restrictions, like Al Fox from the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, who had his own thoughts about Rubio's speech.
"He's completely ignorant. He's never been to Cuba. What qualifies someone who has never been to a country to be an expert on that country?" Fox said about Rubio's comments.
Calling him a "puppet to those former 'Batistaites'," Fox — who has been to Cuba approximately 80 times and has fought for years to end the 50 year-plus U.S. economic embargo against the Communist government — acknowledged the problems with the government in Havana, but said that's no reason not to improve relations.
"There's no freedom of the press as we know it, that's a fact," Fox said, adding that's also the case in China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia — three nations that the U.S. maintains a relationship with.
Among the organizations that have traveled to Cuba in recent years is the Florida League of Women Voters, which traveled there in 2011.
Tampa business consultant Mark Anderson recently traveled to Cuba. He told CL that while he agrees with Rubio's criticism of the Cuban government, he believes opening up travel restrictions allows visitors to "see and feel what the Cuban government is doing to the Cuban people, something we don't get much first hand news about in the US."
Anderson strongly disagreed with the zoo analogy. He's said he's visited Tanzania, India, Kenya and Cuba, "and I think the more awareness we privileged people have of unfair and unsupportable situations will generate more support for reform over time. It strikes me that Senator Rubio is taking a more selfish view of his personal situation and history with respect to his Cuban heritage, versus a broader populous perspective of the American populace."
Tampa resident Ryan Iacovacci also recently traveled to Cuba with the Laredo, Texas based group Center For Global Justice. He said the group's mission was to study and understand urban and suburban agriculture and the expanding cooperative movement. "We spoke to farmers, journalists, academics, and citizens all over Havana ..some that loved Cuban and didn't want to leave others who were frustrated."
As far as Rubio's comments are concerned, Iacovacci said that though the Castro-led government has definitely committed atrocities against their own people, he maintains that the U.S. government should not be one to judge.
"I never saw homeless or hungry beggars on the streets in Cuba. I never saw anyone disappeared by government agents. I never saw or heard or read of any people so angry or psychologically damaged they would go and shoot up a theater. In fact, I never heard one gun shot in the city or country side. Where as in my neighborhood in Sulphur Springs in Tampa, I hear gun shots every night, see police harassment, pregnant drug addicts, kids who eat skittles for breakfast...the list goes on."
On Sunday, Jamal Thalji of the Tampa Bay Times reported on the latest developments of direct flights from TIA to Cuba, which was reduced recently from five trips a week to three.
Although that's not good for the Tampa Bay area economy, ardent Fidel Castro critic Ralph Fernandez said it's all good to him. The Tampa attorney told Thalji, "I should not be as bad as I am and be delighted in their failure ... but let's be honest: I am."
Local politicos who've traveled to Cuba during the past decade include Dick Greco, Jim Davis and Mary Mulhern. Kathy Castor announced more than a year ago that she would travel to the Communist island, but has yet to do so.
Traveling most recently to Cuba with Fox was former Tampa Port Authority Chairman Joe Garcia and Ybor City businessman Joseph Capitano Sr.