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Cracks in the dam

Earlier in April, even as gridlock took hold in other policy areas, the Florida Legislature passed a resolution expressing its “profound disagreement” with President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. A few weeks later, on the same day Obama visited the Florida Everglades, Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement repeating his support for the Cuban embargo and criticizing the president for standing “side by side with the Castro regime.”

But beyond Tallahassee, fissures are forming in Florida’s once-monolithic support for the embargo. Just last week, a delegation of 30 government and business leaders from Pensacola – the heart of the conservative Panhandle – returned from four-day visit to Cuba.

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The group toured the port of Mariel and met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Alimport, the government’s foreign-trade agency, says Stephen Reyes, a shareholder at Saltmarsh, Cleaveland & Gund, a Pensacola accounting firm that helped arrange the trip. The delegation included the heads of the Port of Pensacola, the Community Economic Development Association and Visit Pensacola, as well as executives from Jesta Towers (cell towers), Oren International (paper products) and Smith Tractor (farm equipment).

“It opened a lot of people’s minds as to what is happening in Cuba currently,” Reyes says.

Though he didn’t attend himself, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, a Republican, sent a letter with the group expressing his support for the trip. “I believe this first trip to be an investment representing a tangible step towards redeveloping the relationship between Cuba and our region of the United States,” Hayward wrote, adding that he intends to travel to the island nation himself in the “near future.”