Florida International University

Latin America Report
3:15 pm
Tue February 18, 2014

Crist And Cuba: Is Florida Ready For An Embargo Reversal?

Charlie Crist (left) announces his anti-embargo stance to Bill Maher.
Credit Real Time With Bill Maher / HBO

What does Charlie know that we don’t know?

Charlie Crist, Florida’s ex-Republican governor and now its leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, assumed a real political risk this month: He called on Washington to lift the 52-year-old U.S. trade embargo against communist Cuba.

In an interview with WLRN, Crist insisted his changed stance is a matter of common sense.

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Community Contributor
7:45 am
Wed July 24, 2013

Jain: Couple Teaches South Florida About One Of The Oldest Religions

Gitika and Sapan Bafna, pictured with their two children, are working to expand religious understanding in South Florida.

South Florida’s small, tight-knit Jain community built a temple in 2009 to practice one of the world's oldest religions. In this holy space where a marble likeness of the Swami Mahavir smiles benevolently, families gather to teach their children about a faith that practices spiritual independence and non-violence towards all beings.

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Cuba
8:07 am
Sun July 7, 2013

Tampa And Miami In Cold War Over Cuban Trade

A Cuban band plays in the main terminal of the Tampa airport to promote flights to Cuba.
Credit Photo by Eric Barton

Click "play" for the radio version of this article.

Quietly at first, and now quite publicly, the city of Tampa has courted Cuba in hopes of becoming its future trading partner. Business owners in Tampa talk of how they’ll capitalize when the island opens up, and politicians make trips there and have come out against the embargo.

Things are far different across the state in Miami. Elected officials there favor the trade embargo. Business leaders, fearful of retribution, rarely speak about future trade with the island nation.

Miami may seem poised to benefit most when the embargo ends, with its close proximity and much larger Cuban-American population. There are 982,758 people of Cuban ancestry in the Miami metro area, compared to 81,542 in the Tampa Bay area.

But Tampa has spent the past decade on a careful plan to build relationships with Cuban officials. It began more than a decade ago, with a trip in 2002 from Tampa’s mayor. A city councilwoman followed with multiple trips over the last decade, and in May, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce organized a group of 38 politicians and business leaders who traveled from Tampa to Cuba.

Tampa politicians talk of expanding direct flights to Havana. They want Tampa to be home to cruise ships that call to Cuban cities. And they imagine the Port of Tampa becoming the main hub of goods heading to the island once the embargo is lifted.

José Gabilondo, the Cuban-born law professor at Florida International University, said Tampa city leaders hope to exploit Miami’s reluctance to trade with Cuba. “Ironically Miami may be the only major city in Florida that’s not actively preparing for more engagement with Cuba,” Gabilondo said.

It’s unclear how much Miami’s reluctance to talk about doing business with Cuba will hurt the city once the island opens up, Gabilondo added. Anti-Castro groups in Miami have created bad blood with the island that could make it harder for the city’s businesses to forge alliances. As Miami continues to speak only of the embargo, Tampa prepares to exploit longstanding ties with Florida’s communist neighbor.

Tampa’s Cuban Courtship

Patrick Manteiga paused in the hallway of the offices of La Gaceta, the Cuban-focused newspaper he owns in Tampa. His grandfather founded the paper in 1922 after spending years as a reader in the Ybor City cigar factories, shouting out the day’s stories to the workers. Manteiga said he circulates 18,000 copies a week in 44 states.

“Here’s our wall of fame or shame, depending on how you want to look at it,” Manteiga said, grabbing a photo off the wall. “Here’s a picture of my grandfather with Fidel Castro, and this is in 1956. And on the table is cash for the revolution. Then there’s another picture here of myself and Fidel Castro.”

Manteiga has published editorials in favor of lifting the embargo. He’s traveled to Cuba. He even met with Fidel Castro and had him sign a photo -- it shows Manteiga’s grandfather sitting with Castro at a table overflowing with money raised for the revolution.

“By now a lot of the punches aren’t nearly as hard when you say America’s position with Cuba is wrong,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, if we would have said this in Miami, we would’ve had our building firebombed."

It’s difficult to imagine such photos hanging on the wall of a Miami-based newspaper, but this is Ybor City, home to a Cuban population considered far more moderate to the rule of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

The moderate politics are rooted in history. Tampa’s Cuban population is made up largely of descendants from cigar factory workers who came from the island in the 1800s and a new influx of immigrants who arrived in the last two decades, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba expert at the University of Denver. Both groups support lifting the Cuban embargo in greater numbers than the exiles of Castro’s revolution, who most lively in or near Miami and are more likely to have seen loss of property, mass murders, and torture at the hands of the dictator.

“Tampa isn’t pro-Castro, but it’s a population that’s more realistic about the effectiveness of the embargo,” Lopez-Levy said. “Even those who oppose the Castro brothers don’t make the embargo a litmus test.”

In 2002, then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and 19 business leaders traveled to Cuba. Greco, the son of an Italian immigrant, grew up in Ybor City. His trip was the first by a Florida mayor to Cuba in 40 years. Cubans in Tampa flooded Greco’s office with angry phone calls and emails, especially after the mayor admitted to spending five hours with Castro.

But Tampa has become far more moderate since, according to City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern. She has traveled to Cuba three times, most recently with the chamber’s trip in May.

“It’s true that the backlash has been loud and vitriolic,” Mulhern said. “But I could count the number of people who have objected on one hand – and with not many fingers.”

Mulhern’s interest came from a meeting with Albert A. Fox Jr., a former congressional aide who now runs the Alliance for Responsible Cuba. His group advocates for lifting the embargo, and he picked Tampa for its headquarters because of its moderate politics.

“Miami is almost irrelevant to U.S.-Cuba relations,” Fox said. “If the embargo is lifted tomorrow, Tampa has a leg up on every other city in America because of this historical cigar connection.”

Fox has helped convince several Tampa-area politicians to come out against the embargo. In April, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, became the first member of the Florida delegation to call for an end to the decades-old policy. Castor, who did not return phone calls for this article, also traveled to the country in May.
 

In an article published on her website, Castor said the country has made reforms that remind her of “the historic economic changes since the 1980s in the former Soviet bloc countries, and in China and Vietnam over the past 25 years.”

Now, Tampa International Airport is putting on a series of Cuban heritage events, including sandwich tastings and Cuban bands, to promote its direct flights to the island.

Business leaders discuss plans to expand one day to the island. Those who traveled to Cuba as part of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s recent trip include the president of the Tampa Bay Lightning, executives from several area hospitals, and the president of Tampa’s University of South Florida.

When asked if Tampa is in a better position to invest in Cuba after the embargo, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Rohrlack responded: “Hands down. Absolutely.”

Rohrlack said the chamber’s governing board has been planning for trade with Cuba for seven years now. Chambers of commerce are typically forbidden from getting involved in politics, but Rohrlack said he saw an opportunity for Tampa.

“People here understand that this 50-year-old policy is outdated,” he said. “It’s time we start thinking about what happens after the embargo.”

Originally the chamber planned to send one of its own with five others from the community. Hundreds of people expressed interest. Dozens signed up. Rohrlack said they had to cut the number off at 38. “Interest kept growing, and we just finally had to cut it off,” he said.

During the trip, Rohrlack recalls conversations with locals who referred to Miami as a city of anti-Castro politics, while they saw Tampa as place that grew up around Ybor cigar factories.

“In Tampa, there’s a celebration of diversity of Cubans, while in Miami there’s less acceptance,” Rohrlack said “This is going to bode well for us when Cuba opens.”

Tampa will add “at least 5,000 jobs overnight” when it happens, estimated Manteiga as he sat in front of a painting of his grandfather in the newspaper’s Ybor City office.

Cuba doesn’t have warehouses to handle mass shipping, so supplies will have to be brought in from a nearby port until they can be built. Florida strawberries, for instance, can’t be kept in bulk in Cuba, meaning weekly shipments from the Port of Tampa.

“Tampa has been the safety valve for Cuba for over 100 years,” Manteiga said, noting that Ybor settlers helped fund the Cuban independence from Spanish. “It’s going to be the same way after the embargo is lifted.”

Miami’s Hard Line

Alina Brouwer comes from a family of musicians. Her father and uncle are both composers and well known in Cuba. Alina fled to Miami in 1992. After the embargo is lifted, she imagines opening up a recording studio in Cuba. Maybe a music school too.

“I dream about going back to Cuba very often. I see my family, my kids, especially, being able to walk around Havana,” Brouwer said.

But Alina is like many exiles in Miami. She says she’s waiting for human rights in Cuba. And only then will she do business on the island.

It’s a common refrain among companies in Miami, where the official political opinion seems to be that nobody should do business with the island until there’s widespread democratic reforms.

But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, said Gabilondo of Florida International University. Instead, Cuba is likely to open up through a gradual lifting of the embargo and a slow progression to capitalism. Think the reforms of Vietnam rather than the near overnight conversion of Russia.

That slow march toward democracy is likely to benefit cities such as Tampa, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and New Orleans -- and not Miami. Miami remains a place where companies fear reprisals for doing business with the Castro government. A Coral Gables travel agency that arranged trips to Cuba was firebombed last year, for example. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the arson, but Miami has a long history of companies meeting the match for even talking about an end to the embargo.

Blaine Zuver’s Coral Gables-based business advertises that it can set up adventure travel “from pole to pole.” Blaine calls his company Arctic Tropic -- but he’s quick to note the one place he won’t go.

“I don’t want to say I’d be blacklisted if I went to Cuba, but it’s highly discouraged,” he said. “My company has good connections here in Miami, and I would lose them overnight.”

Less than a month after the Tampa chamber returned from Cuba, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Chairman Alberto Dosal declined to speak about the issue, instead issuing an emailed response that read in part: “Once Cuba is a free and democratic country, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce would be more than happy to comment on doing business with the Pearl of the Caribbean. Until then, any conversation on the issue is moot and would be premature.”

The politics of Cuba was evident in Miami last year at a groundbreaking for Miami International Airport’s new train station. When Gilberto Neves, president and CEO of construction giant Odebrecht USA, stood to speak, three members of Congress in attendance walked out. U.S. Reps Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and David Rivera left in protest over the fact that Odebrecht’s Brazilian parent company has contracts in Cuba.

Adherence to that hard line is common among leaders in Miami. Anti-Castro groups remain major donors to Florida political campaigns. The most influential remains the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, known simply as the Cuba PAC in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. Based in the Miami suburb of Hialeah, US-Cuba Democracy PAC spent more than $400,000 last year, mostly in donations to federal candidates -- two thirds of them Republicans. Nearly all of Florida’s congressional delegation receives money from the PAC. The only one who doesn’t report contributions from the Cuba PAC: Tampa’s Kathy Castor.

Perhaps Miami’s most consistent critic of the Castro government is Javier Souto, the 74-year-old Miami-Dade county commissioner. Souto was born in the historic Cuban village of Sancti Spiritus, the son of an accountant and a lawyer. Souto worked for a year in Fidel Castro’s government before becoming disillusioned with the revolution. He left for Miami and then took part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Souto served in the Florida House and Senate before being elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission in 1993.

When asked about Tampa’s courting of the Cuban government, Souto compared the city to countries that have ignored the U.S. embargo, such as Canada and Germany. “They don’t care about human rights, they don’t care about freedom of expression, they don’t care about any of that, these other countries of the world,” he said. “They only care about money.”

Tampa might think it will profit from doing business with Cuba, Souto continued, but he predicted the city would suffer instead. The Cuban government is known for ignoring debts, and it’ll likely ignore invoices from Tampa companies. “What Tampa is going to get from Cuba is a lot of aggravation and a lot of problems,” he said.

While Miami politicians publicly support the embargo, many speak privately about their desire to see it lifted, said Kathy Sorenson, a former Miami-Dade commissioner and head of the nonprofit Good Government Initiative, which educates elected officials on ethics. Behind the scenes, Miami businesses are quietly planning for an open Cuba, she said.

“There are lots of smart business owners in Miami, and believe me, they’ll figure out how to do business there once it opens,” Sorenson said.

Like many in Miami, Mike Vidal objects to any dealings with Cuba until the island makes major reforms. Among them, Vidal wants back the land the government seized from his family, including his grandfather’s castle-like home, a copper mine, a cattle ranch, and a mile of pristine oceanfront property.

Vidal, a 57-year-old computer technician, comes from a politically connected family – his grandfather was speaker of the house and a United Nations ambassador in President Fulgencio Batista’s government. His father was an advisor to Batista.

“I consider myself pretty moderate when it comes to Cuba,” Vidal said. “But when it comes to doing business with Castro, or traveling there, I don’t want to see it happen until they return the land they took from families, mine included. Pay for it, or give it back to us.”

Cuba experts believe that’s unlikely to happen, and it’s a major issue that may keep Miami from profiting on Cuba’s slow reform -- to the benefit of cities like Tampa.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org. The Public Insight Network contributed to this report and can be found online here.

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Medicine
7:00 am
Mon June 17, 2013

Florida’s First Liver Transplant Recipient Among FIU Med School's First Graduates

Engebretsen shares a proud moment with mother Mary Ann Lunde and husband Ryan Labbe.

Dr. Trine Engebretsen bristles at the mere hint of anyone expressing sympathy for her – something she makes clear when strangers ask about her story.

  After all, Engebretsen’s entire life has been one display after another of fortitude.

“Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue,” she states, calling upon a quote. “Realize the strength, move on.”

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Education
6:37 am
Mon June 10, 2013

WLRN Teams Up With FIU To Tell Radio Stories In A Digital Age

FIU students work with WLRN staff to produce their own radio reports.
Credit Photo by Doug Garland

The class is gathered around a conference table in the newsroom shared by the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. On the screen in front of them is a reporter, John O’Connor, connected via Skype. This class often covers how multimedia platforms are taking over newsrooms, so it makes sense that today’s speaker is streaming live from the Internet.

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Science
6:01 am
Tue May 21, 2013

Defense Department Funds Miami Project To Thwart Cyberattacks

Six FIU students were selected to participate in cyberspace internships at Point Mugu Naval Base in Southern California and Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta. From left to right, Himanshu Upadhyay, ARC IT program lead, Christopher Lopez, Jon Carvajal, Tiffany Arrazola, Steven Lopez, Michael Garcia and Dr. Leonel Lagos, director of research for ARC.

In the next few months, Florida International University researchers will be doing their part to prevent the kind of high-tech cyberattacks that could cripple financial institutions, disable major infrastructure or threaten national security.

  The Department of Defense plans to provide seed funding of $150,000 to FIU’s Applied Research Center (ARC) to launch a cybersecurity test technology program. The project’s goal is to develop new technology to help thwart cyberattacks and cyberterrorism.

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Performance Art
4:37 pm
Thu May 16, 2013

Miami Artist Turns Body Fat Into Soap After Liposuction

Orestes De La Paz stands by his exhibit, Making Soap, at the Frost Art Museum.
Credit Marva Hinton

Miami artist Orestes De La Paz has an unusual piece of performance art on display at the Frost Art Museum on the campus of Florida International University.

Last December, FIU grad De La Paz had liposuction surgery. His plastic surgeon removed about three liters of fat from his body.

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Community Contributor
8:02 am
Wed May 15, 2013

Jewish Museum Of Florida Shares Stories Of Struggles

Housed in a former synagogue, the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU features the original 1936 stained glass windows and marble platform, or bimah, from which sacred scripture was read.

 

In 1887 Marcus Weinkle’s loving parents buried him alive. That act likely saved the 13-year-old’s life and certainly set in motion an odyssey that took him from his native Russia to, eventually, Central Florida.

  His story – and that of countless other Jewish immigrants with a Florida connection – comes alive in the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU on Miami Beach.

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Community Contributor
8:45 am
Wed May 1, 2013

A Cancer Patient’s Quest For Purpose And The Pacific Ocean

Menasche: “I understood cancer would take my future as soon as I was diagnosed, but I didn’t understand it would take my past.”
Credit Photo provided

David Menasche is a light packer. Four days of clothes, basic toiletries, a voice recorder, a laptop and a cell phone are all he needs. Oh, and his red-tipped cane, to help him navigate now that he is almost completely blind.

His quest is heavy on purpose and light on itinerary. His goal: to see the Pacific Ocean before his vision is completely lost, and to visit as many of his former students as possible along the way.

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Documentary
4:48 pm
Thu April 25, 2013

How Wynwood Went From Abandoned Warehouses To Hipster Hangout

An unidentified woman views a painting at Jude Papaloko's new studio in Wynwood.
Natalie Edgar

The Wynwood neighborhood in Miami has changed so much over the last 10 years, and it's not by accident. A group of investors set out to re-invent the area and make it into an arts district.

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Community Contributor
8:02 am
Fri April 19, 2013

Five Centuries Later, Florida Remembers Ponce de León's Tumultuous Arrival

Juan Ponce de León came to Florida searching for the Bahamas, not the fountain of youth.
Credit Photo via the Granger Collection, N.Y., and Visit Florida

Juan Ponce de León served as governor of Puerto Rico for a tumultuous five years. During that time, the native Taínos tried unsuccessfully to overpower him, but, in the end, it was the son of Christopher Columbus who unseated him during a political struggle for power in the New World. Ponce de León’s new “asiento,” or assignment, from Spain’s King Ferdinand II was to set sail and find – not the fountain of youth, as is widely thought – but the island of “Benimy.” After being at sea for nearly a month, he finally sighted land, but it wasn’t Bimini.

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Sports
2:01 pm
Mon March 11, 2013

FIU Begins Inaugural Season Of Beach -- Scratch That -- Sand Volleyball

FIU begins its inaugural sand volleyball season this month.
Credit Josh Ritchie

The sport that Podschweit, Stepanova and the rest of the inaugural Florida International University sand volleyball team will play this spring is a far cry from the bikinis and golden tans that some might have envisioned. For starters, when the NCAA established it as a collegiate sport last year, modest clothing was regulated.

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Community Contributor
9:00 am
Fri February 8, 2013

Miami Researchers Study If Music Can Help Save At-Risk Kids

Patrick Schmidt and Cathy Benedict, center, at the Doral chapter of the Miami Music Project.
Credit Courtesy FIU

Each of us is surrounded by music every day; music plays a significant role in our lives in many forms and settings. This understanding forms the basic impetus of the music education research we are conducting in the Florida International University School of Music with Miami teachers and children.

Our research is strengthened by the understanding that music is a diverse practice, offering the opportunity for enriching experiences to anyone interested in music – not simply the “talented.”

Social change through music

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Arts
11:32 am
Mon January 21, 2013

Miami Poet Richard Blanco Puts FIU In The Creative Writing Spotlight

Credit Richard-Blanco.com

Richard Blanco will likely be Florida International University's most talked-about graduate today.

The 44-year-old is the youngest, first openly gay and first Hispanic inaugural poet.

Blanco has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from FIU as well as a Masters of Fine Arts from FIU's creative writing program.

If it seems like Blanco came out of nowhere, author and Virginia Tech professor Ed Falco begs to differ.

"Well FIU, first of all," he said, "has one of the best poetry programs in the country."

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