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Alimport accord fuels optimism at Port of Corpus Christi
CubaNews / August 2003

By Larry Luxner

Large statues of Jesus Christ look out over the ports of both Havana and Corpus Christi, Tex.

Other than that, the two cities had little in common until last month, when Cuban government agency Alimport signed an agreement with Corpus Christi port officials.

Under the pact, signed Jul. 10 in Havana, Alimport promises to encourage its exporters to move their products through Corpus Christi, which at 45 feet is the deepest port on the Gulf of Mexico. The deal calls for initial bulk shipments, followed by development of refrigerator and containerized shipping.

“It’s the first strategic planning and specifically trade-oriented agreement that Cuba has initialed with any American port,” said Port Chairman Ruben Bonilla in a phone interview from Corpus Christi. “We will demonstrate that we’ll be able to ship agricultural and food commodities to Cuba cost-effectively and more expeditiously than competing ports.”

Corpus Christi, located 150 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border and 853 nautical miles from Havana, is the nation’s sixth-largest port in volume. It handled 81 million tons of cargo last year — 87% of it petroleum from Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, Kuwait and other oil-producing countries. But volume is down from 89 million tons in 2000, forcing port officials to diversify into non-petroleum cargoes. Hence the agreement with Alimport.

“As we seek to diversify, so does Cuba, and there’s a lot of sentiment in Texas for the elimination of the embargo and the easing of travel restrictions,” Bonilla told CubaNews. “With all due respect to the Cuban-American community in Miami, it makes absolutely no sense that we punish Cuba because of its leadership and deny food to its people while we continue to supply food to North Korea.”

According to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, two shipping lines are poised to pick up Alimport’s business: C&S Shipping, headquartered in Australia, and Houston-based United Americas Shipping Lines. Both have obtained licenses to carry U.S. agricultural commodities into Cuba.

“We are confident we are in a position to start carrying some of [Alimport’s] grain cargoes,” said United Americas President Joe Hinson, indicating that grain shipments to Cuba could begin as early as late August or early September.

Howard Posner, a Tampa-based representative of Sea Trade Reefer Chartering — a partner of C&S Shipping — said his company is prepared to provide service to Cuba on an inducement basis if space is available.

“We have a service calling into Corpus Christi every three weeks from Australia. This ship continues on to Florida and up the East Coast. We have told port officials that we are prepared to offer the space that opens up in Corpus Christi to carry cargoes to Cuba, and that could be upwards of 1,000 tons.”

Posner said such cargo could be anything from frozen chicken to beans and grains — as long as it can be packaged and palletized.

The fact that Corpus Christi is located close to major farms and ranches puts it at a competitive advantage compared to other ports in Texas and along the Gulf Coast, said Bonilla.

“Many of the commodities sought by Cuba are located in south Texas, including sorghum, rice, corn, nuts and cotton,” he said. “We are able to deliver these products to the port docks at minimal expenses. We also don’t have the onerous freight charges by land or rail, or barge traffic costs down the Missis-sippi River that other ports might have.”

Bonilla, a Texas attorney of Mexican parentage, said “I think Cuban representatives were able to share an uncanny personal bond with our leadership in Corpus Christi” thanks to the city’s strong Hispanic heritage.

The Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance, formed last February, estimates that Texas farmers could export as much as $54 million a year to Cuba under the Trade Sanctions Reform Act of 2000, which authorizes U.S. food sales to Cuba on a cash-up-front basis.

“For the beef industry in west Texas, this is a big issue, as with cotton and grains, and the produce industry, which could export many of the fruits and vegetables that Cuba is interested in acquiring as their tourism industry develops,” said alliance president Cynthia Thomas, who helped put the Corpus Christi-Alimport deal together.

Corpus Christi is hardly the only Texas port pursuing trade opportunities with Cuba.

Galveston, which handled 3.4 million tons of cargo in 2002, was the first port from which U.S. wheat was shipped to Cuba following the devastation of Hurricane Michelle.

“We think the [Corpus Christi-Alimport agreement] is an indication of strong support for a continued opening of trade with Cuba,” said John Peterlin, senior director of marketing at the Port of Galveston.

Peterlin 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.

Other Texas ports that have explored potential business with Cuba include Beaumont, Freeport and Houston, though officials of those ports couldn’t be reached for comment.

Not only does the agreement open the Texas agricultural sector to “tremendous economic opportunities and new markets,” said Bonilla. “It also compels the Port of Corpus Christi to expand its present cold-storage facilities” from the current 100,000 sq feet to around 125,000 sq feet.

“We have the only cold-storage warehouse along the Gulf that is right on the dock. Ships can unload directly from the vessel into the warehouse without any loss of quality or refrigeration,” he said.

“We also want to develop a container terminal. We recently purchased 1,100 acres of land and are now discussing with potential operators the establishment of Corpus Christi as a major container hub, but that’s probably three to five years away.”

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