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    A Times Editorial

    Greco's muddled message


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 4, 2002

    Tampa Mayor Dick Greco gave a long-winded and passionate defense Thursday of his trip to Communist Cuba, but he was defensive about the wrong thing. We applaud the mayor for going. Tampa's historical ties to the island, the city's large Cuban-American community and the prospects for Tampa-Cuba trade more than justify Greco's trip. His mistakes were to cloak the trip in secrecy, to allow a private group to pay his way, to belittle the notion that elected officials should be candid and to send mixed signals about why he went there and what he accomplished.

    Greco opened his press conference, just hours after returning home, with his own well-worn immigrant story, a fitting windup given the strong feelings Cuba arouses in Tampa's Cuban-American community. He was right to draw attention to the loss many exiles feel and to the pain caused for separated families. Greco hit his stride when he offered his rationale for opening a dialogue with leaders of a nation many call their ancestral home. He has the same realistic view that's gaining ground throughout the United States. The U.S. embargo hurts the Cuban people more than the Cuban government, and "you cannot," as Greco said, "dig in your heels."

    But the mayor didn't take long to revert to his true character. He claimed the trip wasn't secret, his agenda wasn't trade and he didn't travel to Cuba in a public capacity. The answers he has given are long on emotion and short on candor. He left without notice, but his trip wasn't secret. His agenda wasn't trade, but that was the focus. He likes President Bush and supports the embargo, but such a policy hurts ordinary Cubans. He wasn't wearing his mayor's hat, but happened to get five hours with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

    We understand, on a practical level, why the mayor might not want to announce his trip. But taking heat is what elected officials are paid to do. Greco didn't just sneak out of Tampa -- he sneaked back in, being whisked away from reporters waiting at the airport. The mayor said he wanted to protect those traveling with him, but he met with them days before to warn them about the publicity. The secret way Greco has handled this affair makes it easier for his political opponents to call his motives into question.

    The danger now is that Greco's message and the opportunities from the trip will be lost in the furor over the secrecy. Even the mayor indicated as much by the way he positioned himself Thursday, opening his news conference by blaming the media and faulting his critics for not knowing what they were talking about. This is not a tactic that serves the mayor well.

    His meeting with Castro offended many in Tampa's Cuban-American community, and what he needs to do is reach out to them with the same reasonable arguments that he claims he took to Cuba. His message about moving ahead is a good antidote to those who play the exile community for votes, money or their own egos. But Greco also needs to level with the public. He needs to explain, in the aftermath of this trip, the kind of relationship between Tampa Bay and Cuba he envisions when leaders in both nations come to their senses.

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