Obama-Castro Handshake May Help South Florida Gambling Initiative

By: William Patrick FloridaWatchdog.org | Posted: December 20, 2013 3:55 AM
Barack Obama and Raul Castro

Barack Obama and Raul Castro

It was the handshake that shook up the world, and may well usher in a new era of expanded gambling in South Florida.

Human-rights activists were shocked that President Barack Obama reached out Dec. 10 to Cuba’s President Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.

A day before and an ocean away, the state Senate Committee on Gaming began debating whether resort-style gambling should be allowed in the Miami area, some 230 miles from Havana, once the playground of the rich-and-famous before its 1959 Communist revolution.

Boyd Gaming Group of Las Vegas told the committee it wants to build a casino across from BB&T Center, home of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers.

“In the process (Boyd would) make an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars and create a substantial amount of jobs, generally speaking many good-paying jobs,” said Robert Boughner, Boyd’s executive vice president and chief business development officer.

The Las Vegas Sands Corp. also wants to expand in Florida, even pushing lawmakers to approve favorable tax incentives. In October, Sands Corp. commissioned a poll that found a majority of Floridians want Vegas-style mega-casinos.

Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International, both headquartered near Las Vegas, also want to expand casino operations into South Florida.

With all the big-name gaming companies interested in Florida, are they eyeing an end to the U.S. embargo with Cuba and positioning themselves for even greater expansion?

Experts on the topic, including the American Gaming Association and the Jones Walker gaming law firm, didn’t return Florida Watchdog’s telephone calls or respond to emails.

So was the Obama-Castro handshake just the latest brick to fall in the wall stretching across the Florida Straits?

“Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. “But when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant.”

But consider this: Since 2011, Obama has twice eased travel restrictions to Cuba. Now, Americans can fly directly to Cuba from Tampa International Airport and Miami International on any of 11 weekly flights.

And just last week, another airline, Cuba Travel Service, announced nonstop service to Cuba from Tampa. They join JetBlue, American Airlines and Sun Country.

“A free Cuba will quickly allow casinos to reopen, in high-quality hotels designed for, and possibly even limited to, tourists,” I. Nelson Rose, a gambling law expert, wrote on his website Gambling and the Law.

Watchdog.org contacted Rose for comment but did not receive a response.

Obama has been working for some time to thaw relations with Cuba.

“We have to be creative and we have to be thoughtful and we have to continue to update our policies,” Obama said last month in reference to Cuba, according to Reuters.

But an end to a trade embargo is “unlikely” any time soon, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

If it does happen, however, gambling companies already located in South Florida would be well-positioned to strike in Cuba.

Contact William Patrick at wpatrick@watchdog.org or follow Florida Watchdog on Twitter at @watchdogfla.

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