Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine will head to Cuba next week, becoming the first mayor of a Miami-Dade city to visit the island in an official capacity since 1959. Levine is framing the trip as a learning opportunity and says he hopes to scope out the effects that the opening of Cuba to American visitors could have on tourism in Miami Beach.
For watchers of local politics, however, the trip will be a test to see how charged the third rail of Miami-Dade politics remains in these changing times.
Levine's trip is planned for next week. Incidentally, it overlaps with President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba, but the mayor's trip is separate. Levine will travel with a group of graduate students from Tufts University. He contacted the university's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to organize a personalized intensive course in foreign affairs. The study led to the idea for the visit.
“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 says in a statement sent to New Times. "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. As Mayor of a city that thrives on tourism, it’s important for me to be proactive in leading the dialogue on how normalization with Cuba will impact our area.”
Levine tells the Miami Herald he'll also try to meet with LGBT Cubans and dissidents.
Trips to the island nation by American mayors are not uncommon these days. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed visited last year, and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser visited last month. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also planning a visit.
More telling are recent visits by the mayors of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Betting that Miami leaders will demur, business and political leaders in the Tampa Bay area hope to angle their city to take full advantage of opened ties with Cuba. The area even wants to become home to a Cuban consulate.
Meanwhile, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who was born on the island, is against a Cuban consulate in Miami. County commissioners have voted on a resolution to show their opposition as well. Though local political opposition to normalizing ties with Cuba have been more low-key than one would have imagined even a decade ago, no one is exactly greeting the development with open arms.
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No one, that is, until Levine jumped into the fray. Though not as thoroughly Cuban as many other cities in the county, Miami Beach has a significant, 20 percent Cuban-American population. Levine was preceded in office by the city's first Cuban-American mayor, Matti Herrera Bower.
Reaction to Levine's trip could set a tone for how other local politicians engage in the issue.
Levine certainly wouldn't mind the attention. The ambitious mayor is widely believed to be angling for an eventual run at a higher office, possibly for governor, and hosts a limited-run radio show on Sirius XM.