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Gulf of Mexico ports vie for potential U.S.-Cuba food trade
CubaNews / May 2003

By Larry Luxner

The Castro regime’s crackdown on dissidents is likely to elicit strong reprisals from the Bush administration in coming months, but for Gulf of Mexico ports trading with Cuba, so far it’s business as usual.

From Corpus Christi, Tex., to Port Mana-tee, Fla., port officials view Cuba as their biggest new potential market in years.

Under the Trade Sanctions and Reform Act of 2000, U.S. companies are allowed to export food and other agricultural commodities on a cash-only basis to Cuba, which has been under a U.S. embargo since 1962.

Last year alone, the TSRA loophole translated into sales of $138.6 million, suddenly turning Cuba into one of the top 50 customers of U.S. food exports.

“We think the Cuban market is very important. We’ve invested a lot of time developing the necessary infrastructure,” said Jay Brickman, a top official of Jacksonville-based Crowley Liner Services.

Rinus Schepen, Crowley’s senior vice-president and general manager, says his company is shipping 250 to 300 containers a month to Havana from Gulfport, Miss., and the Florida ports of Jacksonville and Port Everglades. That’s up from 200 to 225 containers a month about half a year ago.

According to U.S. trade statistics, nine basic commodities — wheat, corn, soybeans, lard, soybean oil, rice, frozen chicken, eggs and dicalcium phosphate — represent over 99% of the 875,000 metric tons of U.S. commodities shipped to Cuba in 2002, with branded food products making the other 1%.

Betty Ann White, manager of government affairs at the Port of Pascagoula, Miss., says her port has shipped 85,000 tons of frozen chicken to Cuba since December 2002.

“Cuba’s another market for us, and frozen poultry is a big commodity here in Pascagoula,” she said, noting that the port’s overall volume came to 28 million tons last year. “Hopefully, the trade is going to continue.”

But last month, Castro infuriated U.S. officials with his government’s arrest of 78 human-rights activists, independent journalists and others, as well as the execution of three men who had attempted to hijack a passenger ferry to Florida.

The imposition of lengthy prison terms against the dissidents — some as long as 27 years — has led some hawks in the Bush administration to call for retaliatory measures against the Castro regime, including the suspension of U.S. food sales to Cuba. Trade may already be suffering. John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc., said U.S. food exports to Cuba in February 2003 were down 34% compared to one year ago, while March exports will be down around 10%.

“On the list of possible Bush administration actions is a suspension of product export licensing to Cuba, including exports authorized under TSRA and the Cuban Democracy Act,” said Kavulich, “but that’s unlikely to manifest itself unless events in Cuba get dramatically worse.”

Meanwhile, Schepen says Crowley is carrying food products and other cargo, mainly lumber, to Cuba — all of it containerized and all of it authorized under TSRA. “We are concerned with the latest developments in Cuba from a purely business point of view, but it’s too early to say what will happen,” he told CubaNews. “We haven’t seen any reduction in the flow of cargo to Cuba. In fact, it’s increased slightly in the last six months.”

At a recent trade expo in Havana, Crowley signed a deal with Cuban food purchasing agency Alimport to extend its $1.8 million shipping contract until December 2003.

John Peterlin, senior director of marketing and administration at the Port of Galveston, said his port shipped over 150,000 tons of bulk food commodities to Cuba last year through ADM Farmland, a local subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland of Decatur, Ill.

Peterlin says he’s not sure what to make of the latest rumblings from Havana.

“It all depends on the Bush administration’s response [to what’s happening in Cuba],” said the port official. “Unless the regulations change and Alimport stops buying food, we’ll continue to see shipments to Cuba from the Port of Galveston.”

Thomas Moore, trade development representative at the nearby Port of Corpus Christi, said Castro’s latest maneuvers don’t help prospects for overall trade.

“Public support in favor of Cuba-related initiatives has stalled,” he said. “The folks who want to export to Cuba will go ahead with their business, but confidence in a long-range program has slowed down. One wonders why Castro had to thwart what was a program with good momentum.”

So far, Corpus Christi has not actually shipped anything to Cuba, but “we’ve got a significant amount of potential to export,” he says. “We could handle meat, grains, rice, all the basic food commodities, and at 45 feet deep, we’re the deepest port in the Gulf.”

While Gulf ports in Texas, Lousiana and Mississippi have taken the lead in shipping to Cuba, ports in Florida are also interested — though political considerations in the Sunshine State have prevented local officials from showing too much enthusiasm over doing business with Cuba.

Nevertheless, in January, Tampa Bay’s Port Manatee shipped 3,170 tons of dicalcium phosphate to the Cuban port of Cienfuegos.

Steve Tyndal is director of trade development at Port Manatee, which ranks as the fifth-largest of Florida’s 14 deep-water ports, employs 1,100 people and handled more than 6.7 million tons of cargo last year.

“The Cuban officials I’ve met with indicated there would be subsequent shipments, although we’re unaware of any specific schedules,” said Tyndal, who recently held meetings with Abdias Peón, chairman of the Cuban Port Authority.

“They’re very aware of Port Manatee because of its proximity to Havana and Mariel. They have spent some time studying the port and they know it well. Over time, we’ve expressed behind-the-scenes interest in doing business with them, and have been positioning the port so that when we have a cargo of opportunity, we’ll be ready to move.”

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