Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ralph Fernandez mellows on travel restrictions to Cuba

Posted By on Wed, Apr 24, 2013 at 5:39 PM

From left to right - John Grandoff, Ralph Fernandez, Rob Lorei, Bill Hauf (standing), Annie Betancourt, Reverend Russell L. Meyer, Bishop Raymond Johnson
  • Chip Weiner
  • From left to right - John Grandoff, Ralph Fernandez, Rob Lorei, Bill Hauf (standing), Annie Betancourt, Reverend Russell L. Meyer, Bishop Raymond Johnson
It's no secret that Ralph Fernandez is the man local reporters in Tampa reach out to when they want to get reaction from an old-school anti-Castro Cuban hardliner. That happened earlier this month when, against his wishes, Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor traveled to Cuba, where she then became the leading Florida official to call for an end to the 50-year-plus economic embargo.

Fernandez was not pleased. He told CL that the Congresswoman was naive, and had made herself the "poster woman" for the present establishment in Cuba.

So it certainly turned heads this afternoon when Fernandez said that he now supports relaxing the ban on Americans traveling to the Communist island nation.

He made this announcement during a lunchtime discussion about Cuba's inclusion on the State Department list of terrorist states.

"The First Amendment is on the side of ending the Travel Act," Fernandez said. "It would bring a massive influx of dollars to the Cubans." But, he added, "it won't bring about change," adding that between 1977 and 1982 there was no U.S. ban on travel to the island, and it didn't result in any change with the Cuban government.

Fernandez went on to say that the well-publicized "person to person" trip to Cuba by the pop music couple Beyoncé and Jay Z illustrated the unfairness of current distinctions in who can make such trips. At the time of their high-visibility appearance, Fernandez made noises about going after OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) or the Treasury Department for allowing the pair to make such an appearance, but all he said about that today was how lax those agencies are in controlling who can get into the country.

Fernandez was speaking at an event at the Hilton Tampa Downtown, where the topic was whether Secretary of State John Kerry should advocate with the Obama Administration to take Cuba off a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a list of Washington foes that also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan.

Fernandez was the only one of six public speakers to argue that Kerry should not do that, earning him plenty of praise for his "courage," though as Fernandez admitted during his opening remarks, he's faced more hostile crowds.

Local attorney John Grandoff, best known for representing developers, laid out a meticulous case why Cuba should be removed from the terrorists list. He recounted how certain nations were added, then removed, such as North Korea in 2008. "Where is North Vietnam, Pakistan, Afghanistan?" he asked. "Where are other countries that could be deserving? Does Cuba have a totalitarian repressive regime? Yes, it does," citing a Human Rights Report with numerous incidents of violations. But then he rhetorically asked if Cuba was a hotbed of terrorism."On par with Syria, Iran and Sudan? No, it is not."

Former Miami State Representative Annie Betancourt (1994-2002) said Tampa was "way ahead" of Miami when it comes to discussing Cuba, which she defined as a "thorny issue." She said even now, it would be difficult, "if not impossible," to discuss removing Cuba from the list of terrorist states without a group protesting outside the hotel ballroom.

The most outspoken critic of Cuban-U.S. relations as they have played out over the decades was Bill Hauf. He is president of the Tampa-based Island Travel and Tours, which has been the only Bay area-based charter service offering direct flights to Havana since President Obama announced two years ago that additional U.S. airports could allow such service.

Hauf recited a long list of reported actions that the U.S. government had committed against Cubans and the Cuban government over the decades and said, "You can’t deny that the U.S has practiced terrorist attacks against Cuba over the past 50 years...who should be on the list? I’ll leave the decision up to you. "

Later in the discussion Fernandez condemned Hauf's comment.

The event was sponsored by the World Trade Center Tampa Bay and the Florida Council of Churches.

Steve Michelini, managing director of the World Trade Center, modestly told the audience of approximately 40 people that they were at "a historic event, " and said that Tampa is destined to have a leadership role in U.S. policy changes toward its neighbor to the south. "We are on the verge of pulling off a tremendous change in the political atmosphere," he declared.

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