'I ... do what I think is best for this community'
By Times staff writer
I've always wanted to see Cuba. I wondered, what was it really like? I never saw it in my life. I've seen a great many Cuban people, and I'm going to say what I'm about to say not because I feel I need to explain it to anybody, but there may be people who don't know me well. I've run for public life about five times I think in Tampa and gotten elected; hopefully that's because people like what I represent, what I do. I've got eight more months in public office, and if I thought something was for the betterment of this community the day before I left, I would do it. That's the way it has to be in politics.
Much of what I do on a daily basis is somewhat controversial, so that everything we do, someone likes and someone doesn't like. One thing I've never done is weigh what I've done on the basis of what's popular or what isn't. I try to do as much research as I can on every subject and do what I think is best for this community and what I can sleep with at night.
There are people that I deal with in government that take stands and say things that perhaps are cute, and many weigh what's popular and what isn't. I don't do that, nor do I answer it. And those of you in the press know that. I have never, in nearly 18 years that I've been in public life, written a letter to the editor for any newspaper at all, nor do I intend to do that, although sometimes it's so messed up you can't believe it. See, I always thought if I started that type of thing, or try to be as cute back with people who perhaps have agendas of whatever they might be, or even mistakes, I don't do the city any good. . . .
In order to do the right thing, a person has to look into each and every subject and mention a jillion things. The arts center: Some of you may think that's the most important thing in the world, others would rather tell people, why not fix the potholes? As though it's the same thing, or you can eliminate one if you don't do the other. The community investment tax: That's not popular with everyone in Tampa. Where would we be without it? You'd have every school on double session, you wouldn't have created every job that you've got in this area, which is probably more than any place in the United States. I say that only to say that on a daily basis, a person in a position like I'm in must make decisions that they honestly feel inside are in the best interests of the community.
When I decided to go on this trip, it wasn't that I didn't know it'd be controversial on the part of many Cuban-Americans. But let me say that when the first Cuban-Americans started coming over, I was on the City Council. I was 29 years old. And then I got elected mayor; I ran when I was 33. There is not a group of people in this country that I admire any more than the Cuban-Americans who came to this country. Not only have I felt that way, I've articulated it in every speech that I have ever made, practically. I bring up Cuban-Americans and how they personify what this country really is, and how many of them came here with nothing.
Most of you know that some people, including the organization that we went with, is for lifting an embargo in Cuba. And many things have changed -- the transportation of some medicine. And we took some medicines on this trip and talked about health care and a million other things that I will tell you.
I asked this group, I'd like to meet Fidel Castro, I want to see him. I want to tell him what I think, I want to tell him how the Cubans here feel. I want to form opinions about what I see in an unbiased way. Gosh, did we ever do that. I would never betray anyone or do anything that wasn't in the interests of this country.
Let there be no mistaking about this. I've met several presidents of the United States. The one we have now, I have more respect for than practically any person I have ever met. I consider him a friend, and I know that he's a friend of this country. I also know that he knows more about Cuba and that type of thing than I will ever learn.
I told Fidel Castro, if you met George Bush, you would like him. He's a good man. He's an honest man. And whatever he decides to do on this embargo, I am on his side. Even if perhaps what I've seen I may disagree, he knows more than I do, and I trust him as my president.
We went to Cuba, and I tell you, the first thing that got my attention was, it was far better than anybody had ever described, that I was looking at somewhat of a skeleton of a beautiful past. I can better understand today than I did 35, 40 years ago why many of the Cuban-Americans who live here were so saddened by leaving. They lost a lot, gang.
I can imagine that in its day, it was one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen in my life. The architecture was phenomenal. Gorgeous buildings. I saw houses in Cuba by the hundreds that would make the ones we have on Bayshore pale. Not one or two -- hundreds of them. I saw buildings that once were thriving in terrible disrepair, falling down. And they have some restoration program going. Some of the houses we went in, I thought, my God -- if I owned this, and someone kicked me out, how could you possibly, ever in your life, not hate it till the day you die?
One of the things that struck me after I got there for a couple of days and since I've come back is that the people there are basically the same as the ones here. They look the same, they act the same, they're playing dominoes on the corner. And not one, whether it were a maid, a person walking down the street, a guy picking up trash, not one said one derogatory thing about our country, which I thought was very strange.
I really don't know how they've made it the last nine or 10 or 12 years there. The sacrifices that those people are making. And whether you agree or disagree with how it's run, there happen to be 11.2-million people on that island that are cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmothers to the very people that are here. I can't tell you how many people I ran into that said, "I have a brother in Orlando that I wish I could see, or a sister in Miami, or a cousin or two in Tampa."
It's hard to understand that the average salary there is $12 a month. It's hard to understand that you can't buy soap or meat or those things. I got some of the people, apart from the group, to show me ration cards, where they go in and sometimes there are no eggs. Milk comes in powder from New Zealand. You have to order chickens a long way around. I asked: "Well, why don't you have chickens here? It's a big island." Can't afford to feed the chickens, to buy their food. I've never witnessed something like that at a place that at one time was grandeur.
Our last meeting, and one of the reasons we were late last evening, which we weren't certain was going to happen, was a meeting with Fidel Castro. It lasted five hours and 40 minutes.
The first thing that I said to Fidel Castro was "Hi." the second thing was: "The president of the United States is my friend. And that's a fact, and I want you to know that I like him, I trust him. And I'm neither Democrat nor Republican nor anything else. I think politics is important enough to take a stand for people you believe in. I believe in this man, I really do. I've met him several times, personally and otherwise. He has a good heart." And I also told Castro that whatever my president does, I will do also. But then I wanted to meet him.
I started out by telling him actually some of the stories of people here, and how I never thought that would go away, nor should it, because if either of us, had it been reversed, would perhaps have hate in their heart forever. Also, hate isn't a good thing. You begin to have mixed emotions when you look around and you see beautiful little children, and they're not going to have the opportunity we've got, gang. And they're educated, and one of the questions I asked is, "All this education you're trying to give these people, aren't you going to teach in them or instill in them an entrepreneurial spirit ... that's going to make them want more than they see?" The answer to that, on the part of two or three different people when we asked the question was: "There's not a choice. People need to be educated, it's the only way in this world we'll ever get along or understand each other no matter what our points of view are. That's a fact."
Education has come a long way there, it's free. Health care is free. I had no idea how that works. I could bore you with statistics for five hours; we wrote them down, it was like going to school. They have one doctor for every 125 people, and they live in the neighborhood, so he knows his patient, and that's kind of the primary care physician, that's where you go. He lives upstairs in the house and they come in and then if you need more they send you somewhere else, and it doesn't cost anything. Food for them is cheap, that you can find. And yet, God, you see a lot of happy faces. I couldn't help but think that if we had to go through in this country what I saw those people doing, I don't know how the hell we'd ever do it. Probably couldn't. But you know you can't compare the United States of America with anything else you see, because there's not a country like this on Earth, gang. And yet there are people here that many of us don't know exist in this town, nor care, because we don't drive beyond a certain place. I do. Let me tell you a few of the topics we talked to with Castro. One of the other things that I think is important that I said to the president was, "Why I'm here has nothing to do with what little money you've got, or my port, or anything else. And I realize that a lot of the people coming from the United States, in anticipation of the embargo coming down, and my God, we want to trade with you, we're your buddy -- half those folks don't even know what a Cuban is. I do. And now I know more than ever." I told him, "This is not about you and me, Mr. President. You're a lot older than I am but not a bunch, and we're in our waning years not only in politics but life. And those good-looking kids and those young people that I see out there, and the babies unborn, whatever we do in the next several years, is going to have a bearing on their life forever." That became my primary interest when I got there. . . . Castro, I think, understood. He didn't comment, or reply to the people here. But again, the government was a dictatorship at one time. That's not something we cling to either.
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