By Robb Pitts
Mayor Kasim Reed’s recent trip to Cuba presents our city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia with an opportunity of historic proportions.
Due to a scheduling conflict I was unable to accept Mayor Reed’s invitation to accompany him on his first trip to Cuba, although it did cause me to reflect on the first of my many trips to Cuba as a representative of Atlanta.
In the early eighties, I, along with my colleague, Atlanta City Councilman Morris Finley, joined a group of other young political leaders on a visit to Cuba that was sponsored by the National League of Cities.
During our stay there I had the opportunity to speak “privately” and enjoy a cigar with President Fidel Castro. This happened because as we were proceeding through the receiving line at his opening reception, to his surprise I spoke to him in Spanish, and explained that I had some ideas I wanted to discuss with him regarding relations between Atlanta and Havana. He told me to wait until he had finished receiving everyone and we could speak privately. We were then ushered into a room where we talked for some time about my ideas.
I specifically spoke to him about educational, cultural and sporting exchanges between our two cities and how both could benefit in spite of the differences between the national governments of our two countries. I reminded him that in 1927, a competitive athletic exchange began between the students of the Georgia Military Academy (now Woodward Academy) and students from Havana. This early competition evolved into the Havatlanta Games in 1948.
The Games were organized and coordinated by a north side Kiwanis Club and five top Yacht Clubs in Havana. The Games consisted of six sports and alternated between Atlanta and Havana. Some 300 athletes competed against each other annually until the Games were suspended in 1959. He expressed his support for the idea and assigned one of his top ministers to work with me.
Although over the past several decades relations between the USA and Cuba have been slow to change, we appear to be at the beginning of a new day given the historic meetings and dialogue between President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro.
So, with this thawing of relations between the USA and Cuba, the time is right for visionary leaders like Mayor Reed to engage in discussions with the Cuban leadership about the many benefits of having good Cuban relations with Atlanta and the state of Georgia. And because of previous visits by Mayor Maynard Jackson, Mayor Andrew Young, Governor Sonny Perdue, Governor Nathan Deal, President Jimmy Carter, Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin, House Speaker Terry Coleman, business mogul Ted Turner and many others, the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia are well known to the Cuban leadership. And very significantly, Georgia does not have the same history as does Florida with respect to Cuba.
We must continue to be aggressive in pursuing opportunities with Cuba because other cities and states also hope to take advantage of this window of opportunity. The state of Alabama, the city of Mobile and the University of Alabama have made themselves known to Cuba. Further to the north, the state of Wisconsin is also a player.
Yes, times are changing and even though there will be those who question the benefits of such efforts, I am confident that history will view favorably this attempt by Mayor Reed and all of the other visionary leaders who see the benefits of Atlanta and Georgia becoming the “Gateway to Cuba”.
It is a huge step forward in the international growth and development in Atlanta and for the whole state of Georgia.
So let the Havatlanta Games begin!
Robb Pitts is the former member of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, president of the Atlanta City Council and member of the Atlanta City Council.