In Cuba, a Port Grows Where Refugees Fled

The last time Elda Fernandez Acosta saw U.S. ships come into the harbor at Mariel was to evacuate thousands of Cubans seeking a better life abroad 34 years ago. The next time she sees them, they’ll be loaded with Cuban goods for export, she says.

“Once the blockade falls, the economy here will really take off,” said Fernandez, Communal Assembly President of Cuba’s biggest port, as she looked out from her office at four new Brazilian-built cranes across the bay. “Companies will come here to export all over the world.”

Famous for the Mariel boat-lift of 1980 when Cuban authorities allowed 125,000 people to flee to the U.S., the town used to be a symbol of Cuba’s economic stagnation and despair. Now, a $1 billion port opened this year by Brazil’s Odebrecht SA is making it emblematic of the island’s potential. Residents, mired in poverty, hope the container terminal and near-by free-trade zone will be the first to benefit after U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Dec. 17 the restoration of diplomatic ties and an easing of a five-decade-old embargo.

Goods will be transported along a new bypass connecting the port to a three-lane highway to Havana, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) further east.

The free-trade zone to be completed in 2015 will churn out other goods for export, said Cesario Melantonio, Brazilian ambassador to Cuba. Tax and tariff exemptions in the zone will allow Brazilian agribusiness, food and tobacco companies to exploit Cuba’s educated and low-cost labor force to gain a competitive edge in the U.S. and Caribbean markets, he said in an interview Dec. 23. Brazil is Cuba’s fifth biggest trading partner.

Little to Spare

The new port already employs about 2,000 workers, 10 times more than the old terminal, on above-average wages, said Fernandez.

Fish salesman Ivan Sanchez is reaping the benefits, citing three Venezuelan shipping agents as his best customers.

“They have the most money to spare,” Sanchez said while showcasing 3-kilo packs of snook for traditional Cuban New Year meals from a freezer in the back of his house.

Yet, in a country where the average wage is $20 a month, many potential customers walk away without buying, unable to afford the $5 bundles. Down the road, the new cranes outside Fernandez’s office are idle and only one ship is docked in the terminal on Christmas Eve.

For now, Mariel’s potential is unfulfilled and few local people are benefiting from the investment.

Paperwork Frustration

Many homes in the town of 43,000 have no tap water because of broken pipes, and those residents with water can’t drink it due to contamination. Outside the homes, horse drawn carriages tussle for space with container trucks in the muddy, narrow streets.

Construction businessman Carlos Rodriguez Vazquez says he feels frustrated by the obstacles thrown in his way as he tries to help the town emerge from its economic lethargy. After waiting three hours in the Community Council, the administrative branch of the town hall, to get a document allowing him to pay his 16 workers holiday bonuses, he gives up.

“The paperwork is too exasperating,” Rodriguez, 38, said while dodging streams of water in the Council’s leaky reception room. “We have the hope of benefiting from the port, but the regulatory changes are very, very slow.”

Rodriguez, a trained lawyer, said all deals with foreign firms are negotiated by the government, preventing his company from getting port construction work. His projects with local authorities to renovate parts of the hospital and kindergarten have stalled because of lack of funds, meaning he can’t afford a proper Christmas meal for his family this year.

No Moron

“I know we are technologically backward, but we are not morons,” Rodriguez said. “We have the ingenuity and academic preparation, we can solve anything with our hands. If only we had the conditions, we could do anything.”

Jhonny Amores, 41, can sympathize as he sits at the desk in the office of his hotel — without any rooms. The electricity has failed again and he is wiping sweat from his brow as he fills out stacks of forms on a cramped desk next to his assistant in a small room adorned by portraits of guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara and former President Fidel Castro.

The provincial government assigned Amores six months ago to renovate Mariel’s only hotel, La Puntilla, a dilapidated state-owned building on a bay that hasn’t been inhabited since the 1990s.

He said a group of Spanish hoteliers came last month to talk about investing, though he hasn’t heard from them since. In the meantime, Amores is rebuilding each of the 23 rooms “one brick at a time” with sporadic funding from authorities.

“Hopefully, once the port picks up the need for accommodation will increase the pace of work,” he said. “I might have three rooms ready to rent next year.”

Disappointing Growth

Four years after President Raul Castro’s decision to simplify licensing laws for private industry and increase the range of activities open to them, the island’s economy remains in the doldrums.

Economic growth slowed to 1.3 percent this year, almost half the official target and down from 2.7 percent in 2013, according to National Office of Statistics. Economic slowdowns in Venezuela and Brazil curbed any resurgence of activity at Mariel’s port.

Estel Gordines, 70, lives in a social housing project next to Mariel’s power plant and survives on a $10 monthly disability stipend for her deaf and mute son.

“We haven’t seen any of the new money, nothing has changed here in the last 20 years,” she said. “I subsist on what my friends and relatives give me.”

Thirty four years after the boat-lift, many in Mariel are not convinced staying for the possible end of the embargo will be worth the 54-year wait.

“I just want to see what else is out there,” said Yumma Rodriguez, builder Carlos’ 33-year-old brother who has tried four times to get from Mariel to Florida on makeshift boats. “There has to be something better.”

By Anatoly Kurmanaev, Bloomberg

December 26, 2014

To contact the reporter on this story: Anatoly Kurmanaev in Mariel at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andre Soliani at Philip Sanders, Bill Faries

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