Gilich delivers Biloxi hospitality to Cuba

“There is no doubt that we have an opportunity to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with Cuba,” Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said upon his return Sunday from a four-day visit to Havana. “There are no guarantees, of course, but we have started a dialogue that could allow us to capitalize on the geographical advantage we have in proximity to Havana.”

Gilich’s four-day visit to Cuba was the most recent step in his quest to bring the Cuban National Baseball Team to Biloxi for a series of games at MGM Park. As the pursuit of that goal unfolded, Gilich quickly seized on the potential trade benefits to a Biloxi-Cuba relationship. He was joined on his trip by Biloxi development officer F. Cliff Kirkland, Gulfport businessmen Shorty Sneed and Frank Bordeaux, Biloxi surgeon Michael Diaz and local casino host Bobby Carter, who has made more than two dozen trips to Cuba. This was the second humanitarian trip to Cuba for Diaz, who delivered medical supplies. His family moved to the U.S. from Cuba in the early 20th century.

Among others, Gilich and his group met with several officials including the Deputy General Director of the United States General Division of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Charge D’Affaires of the United States Embassy in Havana. The consensus message the Biloxi group received was that the time to build a relationship has never been better in the last six decades.

Gustavo Machin, deputy general director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry and recent appointee as Embassador to Sweden, congratulated Mayor Gilich on his initiative, which comes at a time when Cuba and the United States are redefining their relationship.

“The last two years were the most productive of all the years of bilateral relations since 1903,” said Machin, who also pointed out that U.S. tourism in Cuba increased 135 percent from last year to this year. While noting that some advances made under President Barack Obama could be sidetracked by President Trump, Machin said the great majority of bilateral agreements implemented during the Obama administration are still in effect and likely to endure any initial tweaking by Trump. “I believe our two peoples deserve and want better relations,” Machin said. “Civilized relations means putting aside our differences, trying to find a solution of common ground and focusing on what could be the benefits.”

Gilich received a similar message from U.S. State Department career diplomat Scott Hamilton, the Charge D’Afaires of the embassy in Havana. “Of course we don’t know yet what direction the new Administration will eventually take in relation to Cuba, but there is clearly support in Congress for improved relations and trade with Cuba,” Hamilton told Mayor Gilich during a Friday night reception at the United States Embassy in Havana. “Opportunities will come and you’re smart to position yourself and your city to benefit.”

The group met with CNN’s Havana Correspondent Patrick Oppman to get an overall view of the current political climate in Cuba, which will undergo a paradigm shift in leadership next year when Raul Castro resigns and a new president is appointed. The Biloxi contingent also conferred with a Cuban attorney experienced in trade development with foreign nations.

“I don’t think our visit could have gone any better,” Gilich said. “We met with the right people and all of them encouraged us to keep moving the ball forward. We’ve identified our next step and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know a lot about the politics behind the scenes in Washington and Havana, but after visiting the country and its people, I know Cuba needs a lot of things. And Cuba has things that we can use in our country. And Biloxi is a straight shot up the Gulf from Havana. We just have to figure out the best way to bring it all together.”
See a gallery of photos from the trip
See video of the mayor at the piano