Miami Beach mayor to lead grad students on Cuba visit

Mayor said establishing ties is important

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine plans to head to Cuba later this month to lead a delegation of Tufts University graduate students.

The mayor, who announced the March 20-24 trip on Tuesday, said he plans to lead a delegation of 12 graduate students to Cuba, along with a professor from the university’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy.  

While in Cuba, Levine plans to take part in meetings to "gain full appreciation on the path forward to empower the Cuban people through the normalization of relations with the United States and Cuba," a media release said.

The United States and Cuba began the process of normalization in December 2014, and on Tuesday the U.S. Treasury Department eased Cuba travel restrictions, allowing individuals to take "people-to-people" educational trips to the country.

Levine's trip will coincide with President Obama’s visit to the island nation which is slated to take place March 20-22.

"It is a unique opportunity to lead a group of graduate students from the Fletcher School at Tufts University to Cuba as part of a people-to people engagement effort," Levine said via a press release.  "With President Obama’s historic trip coinciding with ours, our delegation will experience firsthand how diplomacy can lead the way for the Cuban people to see better days ahead."

Levine said that as mayor of a city that thrives on tourism, it’s important for him to be "proactive in leading the dialogue" on how normalization with Cuba will impact his community.

James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School, agreed with the mayor, and praised Levine's support of his school.

"This is a unique moment in history and our students will be immersed among the Cuban people to learn about the path forward through direct engagement and diplomacy. The normalization of relations with Cuba is the right decision, and one that I have long publicly supported," Stavridis said in a statement.

Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who will join the mayor on the trip, said in a statement that he believes the best tool to empower the Cuban people is direct engagement and "reversing course on the policies of isolation."

In an interview with Local 10 News, Levine said he looks at the trip as a chance to "look, listen and understand Cuba."

"We're meeting with the bishop of the church. We're meeting with our ambassador, we're meeting with the LGBT community, we're meeting with the dissidents," he said.

The mayor also denied that he’s going to pitch the idea of having a Cuban consulate on Miami Beach.

"There is no conversation about that right now," he said.  "Of course any consulate office is the decision of the State Department."

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado expressed his disapproval Tuesday of a Cuban consulate coming to Miami. 

"If the federal government wants to approve a consulate somewhere in Miami that's their problem," he said. "But if they do it in Miami then we're going to have to deal with the security and the social issues it will cost."

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez took a different approach.

"If the federal government decides they want to have a consulate here; the Cuban government decides they want to have a consulate and it's approved by the federal government then we'll have a consulate here," he said. 

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.