TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — When Cuban Ambassador Lianys Torres Rivera visited Tampa recently, she visited Ybor City, the Tampa Bay History Center and even the Florida Aquarium.
The Cuban government has an agreement with the Florida Aquarium to work on a project to improve the health of coral reefs. The trip was set up by local businessmen and the ambassador met with several local elected officials.
However, when the ambassador had dinner at a local restaurant with the business leaders and elected officials, a protest ensued.
Roberto Pizanno was held as a political prisoner in a Cuban jail for 18 years and when he saw the ambassador in the restaurant, he could not contain his anger. Pizanno and his son Rafael screamed at her.
“You don’t feel it because you are going to have your wine and dinner, but my family is suffering in Cuba because of her,” Rafael Pizano shouted across the room.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was among those at the dinner who tried to diffuse the situation, but Rafael Pizano wasn’t having it.
“When we found that, it was just complete shock, considering that Cuba is on the international list for sponsoring state terrorism and that the voice and face of the regime was right here in Tampa, Florida which is home to many exiles, it was very unsettling,” said Pizano.
Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco was at the meeting along with Karen Perez, a Hillsborough County School Board member, and Cindy Stuart, the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court and Comptroller.
Perez issued a statement after the meeting:
“I trusted a community leader that organized the dinner and invited me to attend. My thoughts were that issues concerning the students needs would be addressed and that the visit was in the best interest of the Cuban students in Hillsborough County.
I take responsibility for not knowing who was visiting or the purpose for the visit other than welcoming a dignitary from Washington. D.C. The assumption that some have made that I endorse any position of the Cuban government is not true. I stand with the Cuban Exile Community in their fight against the continued oppression of their friends and families and fellow countrymen.
His assumption that me being at a reception with a Cuban diplomat was anything other than me promoting this region and the things I value such as free speech, due process and education globally is wrong.
I gave Mr Pizano the benefit of the doubt when we met but his recent actions and propensity to disregard the truth has caused me to be more cautious in dealing with him and his organization. Accordingly, all suggestions related to Cuban art, culture, and history made to me going forward will need to be vetted before I can act on them, as with and any similar requests, all will be vetted for any historical accuracy.”
Maniscalco and Stuart have not commented on the event.
Vincente Amor is a local Tampa businessman who helped facilitate the ambassador’s visit. Amor says it’s important to keep a dialogue open between the two countries.
“Cuba is part of the United Nations countries and we have a relationship with them, even if we have difference. We have differences with Saudi Arabia, we have human right violations with Saudi Arabia, worse than in Cuba and we buy oil from them, we visit them,” said Amor who also points out Tampa and Cuba have a long history together, “We have a 200 year relationship with Cuba, almost everybody in this city have a grandpa, a grandma, a father, a mother that came from Cuba,” Amor said.