Flight carries Tampa's hopes and heart to Cuba

Tampa, Florida -- A packed flight from Tampa to Havana on Tuesday morning is carrying two groups of passionate Tampa supporters to build stronger connections between the cities.

The larger team is a 38-person delegation from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. They're making a trip to build potential business links that could benefit Tampa as relations warm up between Cuba and the USA.

The General Manager of Busch Gardens and executives from Amalie Oil Company are among the passengers in that group.

Also traveling are former USF President and Congresswoman Betty Castor, Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, and recently-retired Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.

Port facilities, meetings with local business leaders, and more will fill the Chamber team's four-full-day agenda.

Another group will also be on the plane, hoping to "drum up" a stronger relationship between America and Cuba. The Rockers, a band that's been a part of West Tampa's community since the 1950's, is heading south for a cultural tour.

The Rockers have hosted Cuban musicians in Tampa, and some of the band's members are of Cuban descent. They told me this trip is about people, not politics.

They're hoping that their time in person-to-person visits and performing American music will open more eyes in both countries to the many characteristics Cubans and Americans have in common.

Tampa is in competition with other cities in Florida and around the United States for trade with Cuba, which is expected to grow and expand as President Obama and a bipartisan group in Congress work to loosen travel and business restrictions.

Cuba is expected to officially come off of the U.S. State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism in the next few weeks. And recently, there's been talk of ferries between Havana and the Tampa Bay area.

Most trade and visitation between Cuba and the United States has been forbidden since 1959, but Tampa has seen success with chartered airline flights to Havana and other cities.

That service will expand next month, when JetBlue adds another weekly flight to Cuba from Tampa.

Passengers on that new JetBlue flight will have to arrange their travel through a charter company, as they do with all flights currently connecting the two countries.


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