Former Jacksonville City Councilman Eric Smith is heading up a local delegation to Cuba next week, comprised of local business leaders seeking more trade with the island nation.
"Ninety percent of all shipping to and from Cuba passed through the Port of Jacksonville prior to the 1959 revolution," Smith told First Coast Connect.
"Our city has historic ties ranging from Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, a confidante of Jose Marti, to the Cuban Consulate that used to be located at a home in the 1600 block of Pearl Street in Springfield."
Smith said the delegation will meet with senior governmental leaders to discuss the Jacksonville business community's interest in reconnecting with Cuba.
"We will share with them that our city is Florida’s largest in both land and population, with a major port, a vibrant business climate and a place that welcomes business and trade with open arms," he said. "And, we will ask what they think the future is and could be.
"We will share that this is one of the key places to be in the years ahead. The genie's out of the bottle, whether or not President Trump changes course on Cuba policy."
Smith said the delegation had some difficulty obtaining business visas for the trip, but finally saw success when they began working with the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy. Jacksonville has lagged behind other Florida cities in aggressively pursuing business opportunities in Cuba, and Gov. Rick Scott has threatened funding cuts for Florida port operators that do business with the communist country.
Meanwhile, former State Department official John Caulfield, who headed up the U.S. mission in Havana, notes that the Trump administration has been silent on Cuba.
"They've said only that their policy is under review," he said. "So far, the Obama policies on Cuba have not been reversed. It's interesting that we've had high-profile trips from several governors to promote business. The Cubans are comfortable with this, and trade delegations are one way to get their attention.
"Still, it's one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Cuba doesn't have a lot of resources, and they are limited in what they can buy. But there's still a market to all kinds of agricultural products, and as the tourism business grows there, that's opening up more opportunities."
Melissa Ross is the host of "First Coast Connect." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @melissainjax