Robert J. (Bob) Rohrlack, Jr., CCE
President and CEO, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce
Recently, 37 business and community leaders of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce took an “experiential learning” trip to Cuba. This was the culminating event after over seven years of discussion and effort coupled with an intense 18 months of actual application process for the Chamber to make the trip a reality. We went to Cuba to see it for ourselves and ignore the rhetoric on both sides of the Cuba-US issue, wanting to get to know about Cuba on a “People to People” level.
Several years ago, the Chamber wanted to go to Cuba for the same reasons but received significant resistance both locally and outside the Tampa market. In 2011, as Tampa International Airport was announcing new direct service to Cuba, the Board voted for me to lead a small delegation to Cuba to promote the flights and learn about a new destination. The new leadership team of TPA has been aggressive in their efforts to grow the airport services, both domestic and international, and their success is to the benefit of our community and the region.
Travel to Cuba comes with a long list of U.S. required information and additional approvals required before being granted access to the island nation. We learned that applying for approvals through a Federal process is detailed and cumbersome, but not impossible. Persistence and determination proved to be the keys to making the trip a reality. And it was well worth the effort.
Our two primary goals were to support the international flights of TPA, as previously stated and to have an in-depth experiential learning experience in Cuba. All the readings, documentaries, lectures and discussions could not match actually going to Cuba and seeing things first-hand. The entire trip was educational. Knowing we would need to weigh the information we heard with the perspective of each speaker’s worldview, helped us to have a balanced approach to the trip. Meeting with a university professor who is considered an expert on US-Cuba relations gave a perspective that, while we may have taken exception to some of his points, was interesting to listen to. We were honored to meet with the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, our sister organization in Havana. They were very gracious and welcoming as they explained their strategies of helping businesses in Cuba grow and create jobs, similar to all Chambers of Commerce. It was interesting to learn that they are completely supported by the business membership with no government support.
We were also particularly honored to meet with the Honorable John Caulfield, Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba. With the current embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, our countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. The Special Interests Section serves as the official U.S. presence to our neighbor so close to Florida. Chief Caulfield honored our group by hosting us in the Interests Section home and spending considerable time with us discussing the relationship and how he represents us to Cuba. The question and answer period was extremely educational.
While there we also took architectural lecture tours of old Havana – an UNESCO “World Heritage” site, a working tobacco plantation, a Cultural Ministry presentation and various discussions that gave us a better understanding of life in Cuba.
To be clear, we did not enter into this trip naively. We are well aware of the geopolitical differences of our two countries. The Chamber made it clear to the group traveling that we would follow all U.S. regulations for our trip to be approved, including that our group must follow the itinerary as submitted and the group must be together at all times.
The takeaway from our trip is that no matter what our differences, people are more alike than we often realize. Cuba is our neighbor only 90 miles off the coast of Florida and the United States is the only country with an embargo against Cuba. The number one country of origin for tourists to Cuba is Canada, our border neighbor to the north. We saw people from Canada, the Scandinavian countries and the Far East. The world is talking to Cuba. Representative Kathy Castor is right, after over 50 years, no matter what the past, it is time to talk. Nothing can change without talking. Not talking has only taken time, without progress.