Best of 2015: Sunday Favorites: The History of Cuban Trade in Florida

As the U.S. works to restore ties with Cuba for the first time since 1961, I thought I would take a historic look into Florida’s relationship with Cuba. Cuban trade here in Florida dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years, when Florida aborigines canoed across the narrow spans of water to barter with the island peoples.

However, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that Cuban trade became an essential resource for emerging settlements in Florida.

Back then, pioneers looked to Cuba with its large natural harbors and bountiful land to develop mutual trade.

I’ve written many times about the cattle trade that occurred in Manatee County and other parts of Florida, but early on Cuba had several major exports including slaves, sugar and tobacco.

During the early 1800s, the U.S. maintained a good relationship with Cuba despite political unrest within the country. While many politicians shared concerns that the Cuban government might fall into the hands of another European power, U.S. exports to Cuba were at an all time high.

The pillar of these exports was flour in addition to beef, oils, cheese, condensed milk and fuel.

Another unlikely import was the Cuban cigar. Up until that time, most Americans preferred snuff, or finely grated tobacco usually smoked from a pipe.

In 1835, taxes on Cuban imports were sanctioned by the U.S., essentially decreasing them by 30 percent. The decline expanded in the 1840s after a severe hurricane struck the island. Spanish tariffs, the financial panic of 1857 and the Civil War also strained trade with Cuba. The diminished investment left many Cuban workers unemployed and impoverished.

Trade improved during the later part of the century, with the U.S. consuming most of Cuba’s exported sugar, tobacco, cacao, coffee, tropical fruits, and nuts. Another major export to the U.S. at that time was iron ore, especially copper.

In the 1860s, Cuba was the largest sugar producer in the world thanks to over 1,500 plantations. If you remember, that was around the time that sugar plantations began emerging in Florida too. Plantation owners like Robert Gamble, of Ellenton, and Pinckney Craig, of Bradenton, hoped to entice consumers to buy within the U.S., which theoretically would be more cost effective.

The plan worked, with the biggest consumers ironically being the Confederate Army. Once Union officials got wind of the trade, they destroyed both plantations. (If you remember the Union Blockade was stationed outside of the Manatee River and tasked with stopping blockade runners like Captain John McKay, of Manatee, from shipping goods to Cuba an as well as other places. McKay was a prisoner of war at one point and escaped from the Dry Tortugas).

An insurrection quelled sugar production in Cuba once again in 1898, but other than that, trade was at a high during the 1890s. Nearly 100,000 Cubans even traveled back and forth between their homeland and the U.S. to work seasonally in cigar factories.

1898 also marked the year the U.S. acquired Cuba as a result of the outcome of the Spanish American War. The acquisition reduced tariffs by 52 percent, reduced taxes and created a system of fair land tenure. We also expanded communications and railroads. By 1903, Cuba was independent.

The early 1900s also brought more U.S. immigration with several Florida settlements doubling in size in a short amount of time. Those settlements included Miami, Tampa and Key West. Many of these settlements began producing large-scale cigar factories that were actually competing with the Cuban market.

Up until 1917, Florida had been the leading producer of citrus. If you remember the Atwood Grove in Ellenton, over 2,500 acres of grapefruit supplied much of the U.S. with tart juicy goodness as well as many European countries.

That year, a landmark freeze in Florida and a statewide fruit fly outbreak sent citrus prices soaring and the world population looked to Cuba for citrus. However Cuba’s luck faltered when it was hit by a hurricane the following year, shadowed by an armed uprising and finally the outbreak of WWI.

Meanwhile, sugar production was growing in Florida again, this time in a more southern portion near the Everglades.

The U.S. and Cuban production of citrus and sugar teeter-tottered throughout the 1920s, with both countries gaining control over the markets but only for short stints. The 1930s and 40s created a more stable period with regard to imports and exports. Cuban cigars were available at every five and dime in Florida.

That period was curtailed by the rise of Castro in the 1950s, though U.S. investment did not immediately slow. The U.S. still held significant portions of cattle, tobacco, timber, banking and mining assets. As a matter of fact, the U.S. operated 75 percent of farmable land in Cuba at the time of the embargo, according to the USDA.

When Fidel Castro overthrew U.S.-supported Fulgencio Batista and a group of revolutionaries seized power of Havana in 1959, all bets were off. Castro’s increased trade with the Soviet Union nationalized the U.S. properties and hiked up taxes on American goods.

The embargo was retaliation. President John F. Kennedy conveniently sent his press secretary to purchase 1,200 cigars the night before he signed the embargo.

The embargo sparked a significant loss for Florida exports as well as aspects of Cuban culture.

According to, the U.S. loses an estimated $1.2 to $4.4 billion annually due to the embargo. The site also includes a Texas A&M University study that calculated the creation of 6,000 American jobs if the embargo is lifted.

While congressional approval, which is required for the embargo to be rescinded, is perhaps a long way away, the restoration of relations with Cuba is on the immediate horizon with ferries all over Florida awaiting the startup of travel.

Could Florida and Cuba ever be the cohorts they once were? Only time will tell. In the meantime, how many of you are planning a trip to Cuba any time soon?

The Bradenton Times, December 31, 2015

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