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Shipping firms, Gulf ports vie for share of Cuba commerce
CubaNews / October 2002

By Larry Luxner

HAVANA -- U.S. ports and shipping companies are vigorously competing for the chance to transport an expected $200 million worth of agricultural commodities to be sold to Cuba over the next 12 months.

Proof of this intense interest is the fact that eight port authorities — representing Corpus Christi, Tex., Freeport, Tex., Jacksonville, Fla., Pascagoula, Miss., Pensacola, Fla., New Orleans and the state of Georgia — sent top officials to last month’s U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition in Havana.

At least a dozen other firms ranging from vessel operators to shipping companies were also present at the fair.

“Cuba is an excellent market for the U.S. Gulf. We find Cuba to be of great interest,” said Clifton St. Pierre, vice-president of Barwil-Fillette, Green Ship Agencies of New Orleans.

Amy Miller, business development director for the Port of Pensacola, said her port did more business with Cuba than any other Gulf port prior to the 1959 revolution.

And now that U.S. food companies are once again allowed to export agricultural commodities to Cuba — albeit on a cash-only basis — there’s no reason Pensacola can’t regain its formerly dominant position.

“Pensacola has two advantages in terms of travel time. First is the inland transit of cargo being sourced in the Midwest. The second is that Pensacola is less than one hour from open ocean, and only 520 nautical miles from Havana, unlike some of our competing ports, which require an eight-hour transit up a channel before you get to open water. If you cut the transportation time, that can result in significant savings.”

Miller told CubaNews that Pensacola is traditionally a breakbulk port, and that “paper products will be a key sector for us.” International Paper has a mill within 20 miles of the port — a clear advantage when Cuba starts importing paper and wood products.

Port Director Chuck Porter says that “if we receive $250,000 to $500,000 in revenue, that would be a tremendous input to our overall economic strategy. We do not need a major windfall. We would feel quite comfortable with smaller volumes over a long term.”

And that could mean serious business for the Pensacola Shipyard Marine Complex (PSMC), a 70-acre private facility just two miles up the road from the Port of Pensacola.

“We’re hoping to get a portion of the barge business and the smaller vessels,” said Marjorie Dale, foreign trade zone and marketing manager at PSMC. “I can save shippers a big part of their costs. Because ours is a private terminal, we don’t have the expenses and overhead a large port needs, so we don’t have to charge what a large port would charge.”

Pensacola lists its biggest Gulf of Mexico competitors as Mobile, Ala., and Pascagoula, Miss. But relatively small Freeport, 50 miles south of Houston, is also angling for its share of the business.

“We’re a unique port, because we’re so close to the fourth-largest city in America, and we have the deepest water in the area — a 45-foot channel that’s only three miles long,” said Michael Wilson, director of trade development for Port Freeport.

“We’ve done three shipments of rice to Cuba, and American Rice has a facility in our harbor,” he said. “It’s much less expensive to ship through Freeport because you don’t have the inland haulage.”

Wilson said Cuba could easily double Free-port’s rice volume from 400,000 to probably 800,000 or even a million tons a year — but only if restrictions on trade financing with Cuba are lifted by Congress.

“There’ll be three or four shipments of rice a year [of 3,000 to 5,000 tons each] under the current situation,” said Wilson. “I don’t think we’ll see much more than that unless something radically changes.”

As things are, Cuba represents at best only $100,000 in additional revenues for Freeport. “If the embargo were lifted, it would conceivably be five or 10 times that amount,” he said.

Added Pensacola’s Miller: “Everyone here expects that it’s a matter of when, not if.”

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