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    Greco, leaders take Cuba trip

    While some say the trip is a harmless fact-finding mission, others are outraged, saying the mayor is supporting a dictator.

    By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 30, 2002


    TAMPA -- Mayor Dick Greco and a group of prominent Tampa leaders are visiting Cuba this week on a mission that some view as an opportunity to enhance the city's trade and others see as troubling support for the Communist regime of Fidel Castro.

    Greco, along with Chamber of Commerce chairman Sandy MacKinnon and La Gaceta newspaper publisher Patrick Manteiga, flew to Cuba on Sunday. They return on Wednesday.

    Developer Dick Beard, who declined an invitation because he is helping organize Tampa's bid for the Republican National Convention, said the group is "going to see what opportunities there are for Tampa."

    "They're over there for good, legitimate purposes," said Beard.

    Some Tampa residents are seething over the fact that Greco, a politician who has enjoyed Cuban-American support for years, is spending U.S. dollars on the Communist island.

    In so doing, said Cuban-born lawyer Ralph Fernandez, Greco is supporting the dictatorship of Fidel Castro.

    "This legitimizes the tyranny of Fidel Castro," said Fernandez, who represents more than a dozen Cuban-American groups. "If he is in Cuba for whatever the reason, it is a betrayal of the Cuban-American community that has supported him for so many years."

    Greco, who is not running for another term as mayor, may have a difficult time mobilizing Cuban support for anyone he supports, said Fernandez. There are more than 35,000 Cubans in Hillsborough County, according to the U.S. Census.

    "(Visiting Cuba) is like the kiss of death," he said.

    Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, who said he is acting mayor until Thursday, said he didn't know where Greco went. "When he leaves town, he doesn't tell me where he's going," said Miranda.

    Greco's trip comes at a time when lawmakers across the nation are supporting an end to the 42-year ban on travel to the island. Under the ban, only diplomats, academics, researchers, journalists, missionaries and Cuban-Americans -- the largest group -- can travel to Cuba legally.

    It is unclear under what category the Tampa delegation is traveling. It is also unclear how the trip was paid for.

    Beth Leytham, spokeswoman for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said this week's trip was not sponsored by the chamber. Manteiga's wife, Angie, said a group called Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy is the organizer.

    On July 23, Congress voted overwhelming to prohibit funds from being used to enforce the travel ban, effectively eliminating it. The House also voted to ease the burden against the sale of medicine and food to Cuba and to eliminate the cap on the amount of money Americans can send to individuals there.

    Castro thanked U.S. lawmakers for approving measures that would ease sanctions against Cuba.

    According to several estimates, about 176,000 U.S. citizens visited the island last year.

    Cubans are extremely poor and their economic fates have been buffeted between world events and natural disasters. Last year, Hurricane Michelle ruined crops and destroyed thousands of homes.

    After the fall of the Soviet Union, its chief financial supporter, the island slid into an economic crisis in the early 1990s. Since then, the U.S. dollar was legalized and Cuba has relied on tourism as one of its main sources of income.

    People who oppose the ban say that allowing Americans to roam around the tiny island will help bring democracy to its people. Manteiga is one of those people, said his wife.

    Monday night, Angie Manteiga said that the group was on a "fact-finding mission" and that this is her husband's second trip to the country.

    "We are firm believers that we don't have to punish the people of Cuba," she said.

    In a July 26 editorial in La Gaceta, Manteiga wrote that the travel embargo is "elitist" and "Un-American." Trade restrictions should also be relaxed, he said. If they were, Tampa and its port would benefit.

    Fernandez said those trying to line up trade opportunities in anticipation of the fall of Castro and Communism are "carpetbaggers" who are not looking out for the best interests of the Cuban people.

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