Kathy Castor was part of a six-member group of Democratic members of Congress visiting Cuba over the past few days, but the delegation shrank to five this week when meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro.
“I came back to Tampa on Tuesday,” Castor said in a recent phone call before the rest of her colleagues visited Cuban leader.
It was Castor’s fourth trip to the communist island since 2011, but she has never met with either President Castro or his brother, the late Fidel Castro, in part because she says she wants “to turn the page.”
“I’m focused on the future, and I think the Tampa area community is as well,” she says, expressing regret that she didn’t meet up with Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first vice president of the Council of the State
Diaz-Canel is expected to succeed Castro when a transfer of power takes place in April. The 56-year-old is the first official who does not belong to the revolutionary “old guard,” since he was born after the Cuban Revolution took over in the 1950s.
Castor is the first Florida member of Congress to call for the end to the now nearly 60-year-old Cuban economic boycott after visiting the island in 2013.
Although considered a bold move in comparison to previous Cuba visitors like former Mayor Dick Greco and Representative Jim Davis, the conditions in Tampa had paved by activists and later members of the business community in Tampa who have embraced strengthening relations between the two communities.
The Greater Tampa Chamber, for example, has led several delegation trips in recent years, and wholeheartedly supported the concept of bringing a Cuban consulate to Tampa, an idea that died with President Donald Trump reversing the rapprochement during the Barack Obama era.
Castor said part of her trip was to learn more about the mystery that continues to surround the strange symptoms of illness experienced by at least two dozen U.S. diplomats station in Havana.
The symptoms were first reported in late 2016 but not disclosed by the State Department until August of 2017. In response, Washington expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington, and ordered most of its own diplomatic personnel from Havana back to U.S. soil and limited travel there to emergency personnel.
The Castro government condemned the purported attacks and denied any involvement but later called into question the integrity of the incidents.
A report by U.S. medical experts from the University of Pennsylvania, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., concluded the diplomatic personnel suffered brain injuries without evidence of head trauma. The Americans reported a range of symptoms including hearing loss, headaches, dizziness, nausea and loss of concentration.
Initially, the U.S. government blamed the symptoms on “sonic” or “acoustic” attacks but has since backed off those labels.
The Penn group could not determine a cause, saying that any “sensory phenomena” was of “unclear origin.”
Briefed by intelligence officials, Castor reviewed the Penn study and said it’s clear that it was no sonar or acoustic attack, but agreed something did happen to the diplomats.
Castor doesn’t believe the Cuban government had any motivation for the incident, since it has only frayed the improving relations between the two nations, which began to thaw with Obama’s diplomatic breakthrough in December 2014.
If not Cuba, though, she says it’s unclear who would have a motive.
“Some rogue element? Some other country? There simply isn’t any evidence to point in any one direction or another,” she said, adding that she hopes U.S. intelligence agencies can ultimately learn the truth.
While critics of U.S. outreach to Cuba (such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio) are continuing to criticize human rights violations of the Castro government. Obama overtures were fruitless since the Cuban government has continued such activities, they say.
But Castor has always championed the loosening of regulations that allow the Cuban people to become more entrepreneurial. However, in her recent excursion, Castor saw less growth in small business movement.
After talking to some small business owners over the past several days, Castor said: “It really appears that the economic reforms on the island have stalled.”
According to Castor, one factor hurting the Cuban people is that the government continues to sustain two separate currencies — one for everyday Cubans, and another for visitors.
Last fall, the Trump administration rescinded one of the most significant Obama-era changes regarding “people-to-people” visas for Americans to travel to Cuba.
The Obama White House had expanded those categories, allowing U.S. travelers for the first time to book a flight online to Havana, buy people-to-people visas at U.S. airport counters, then go on their trip.
Now, travelers need to be accompanied by a U.S.-based tour guide, who must ensure they engage in approved activities that help the Cuban people.
That’s put a sizable dent in the number of visitors who now travel to Cuba from the U.S., Castor said.
Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. His column appears courtesy of FloridaPolitics.com.