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Port Manatee's Cuba deal avoids political torpedo

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
Published January 5, 2004

A delegation from Tampa's port avoided a major political controversy over its trade mission to Cuba last summer. But officials representing nearby Port Manatee weren't as lucky - or maybe as careful - during their visit in November.

After meeting with the Cuban government's import-buying agency, the Manatee delegation signed a memorandum of understanding that would set the stage for shipping more U.S. goods to the island nation from the port.

But the deal included a political torpedo: a commitment by the port to lobby for lifting U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.

U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Pembroke Pines, filed a bill last month that would impose a 100 percent tax on sales "if the trading is conditioned explicitly or otherwise on lobbying Congress to lift trade or travel restrictions on Cuba."

Members of the state's Hispanic Republican Caucus also balked. They talked about the need for a state law that would force the port and other agencies that sign such agreements to register as lobbyists of a terrorist state.

The Indiana Farm Bureau signed a similar agreement. And the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council reports that Cuban officials have been pressuring U.S. companies to be more vocal in opposing trade restrictions.

The local flap blew over last month after the Manatee County Port Authority endorsed the memorandum with the controversial lobbying provision removed.

Tampa port officials say a formal agreement was never on the table during their visit. Their Cuban hosts asked for help overturning the trade restrictions, said Lori Musser, a port spokeswoman. But they dropped the issue when port authority chairman Joseph Diaz said the agency "doesn't do politics," Musser said.

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