Cuban agency may include Tampa in planned visit to U.S. ports

As their two nations build new relations, the people who run the ports in Cuba are making plans to visit the operators of U.S. ports on the Gulf of Mexico during the next few months.

Tampa, which traded in tobacco and cattle with Cuba before the United States imposed an embargo five decades ago, is home to one of the ports recently contacted by Cuba’s port authority.

“Port Tampa Bay is Cuba ready, and would welcome meeting with the representatives of the Cuban National Port Authority should they come to the U.S. to tour Gulf ports,” Edward Miyagishima, the Tampa port’s vice president of communications, said via email.

The trip is being arranged with the help of Engage Cuba, a Washington, D.C., coalition of private businesses working to lift the embargo on Cuba.

No dates have been set but the visit is expected before the end of the year, said Engage Cuba president James Williams.

The tour is designed to help develop relationships with U.S. ports.

“We are certainly hopeful that the trip happens and are optimistic it will,” Williams said.

At least two other sites along the gulf, the Port of New Orleans and Alabama State Port Authority, said they also have been contacted by Cuba about a visit.

Both these ports already ship limited supplies of agricultural products to Cuba.

Meantime, a delegation of maritime industry leaders in Tampa will visit Cuba in October through Tucker Hall, an international public relations agency in Tampa that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999.

The trip is a private initiative separate from Port Tampa Bay but some port tenants will join the delegation, said Bill Carlson, president of Tucker Hall.

They are scheduled to meet with the Cuban Foreign Ministry and with leaders in the fields of environmental protection and deep water oil drilling and to learn about the future of the cruise line industry in Havana.

They might also visit the Port of Mariel, an industrial center encompassing some 180 square miles west of Havana that features factories, storage for trade, and a marine terminal with an initial annual capacity of about 1 million containers.

Some see the Port of Mariel as ideally positioned to capitalize on recent expansions to the Panama Canal that will accommodate ships with greater capacity. They see the Cuba port as a trans-shipment hub for gulf ports in the United States.

“Cuba is the most important economic development opportunity Tampa Bay will experience in our lifetimes,” Carlson said. “There will be billions of dollars in foreign investment in Cuba. That trade should be going through Port Tampa Bay.”

Still, few see any immediate economic payoff in establishing a relationship with Cuba’s port leaders. The Port of Mariel needs time and U.S. laws need to change before the two nations become major trading partners.

One U.S. law prohibits a container ship that has entered Cuban waters from entering an American port for 180 days unless it is granted an exemption from the U.S. Treasury Department.

And while Cuba and the U.S. re-established diplomatic relations more than a year ago, the two have yet to become major trading partners.

U.S. businesses can import products from Cuba if they originate from the growing private sector there.

Still, no major commercial transactions have been reported, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based organization that tracks business transactions between the nations.

Through the first six months of 2016, $99.9 million in American agricultural products have been sold to Cuba. In all of 2009, the number was $710 million, the council said.

It has been legal for Americans to sell agricultural and food products to Cuba since 2000.

Conversely, Cuba’s private sector has yet to make bulk buys of any of the items President Barack Obama added to the list of authorized U.S. exports, such as building materials, construction supplies, restaurant equipment, and farm equipment.

Regardless, Carlson said, if local leaders want to see container ships, cruises and ferries sailing to and from Cuba in the future, the time to forge a relationship with the island’s people and government is now.

“We have to move quickly,” he said, “and be aggressive to compete with other cities and states.”

Paul Guzzo, Tampa Bay Times

August 12, 2016

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