CubaNews / January 2006
By Larry Luxner
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco made headlines when she visited Havana last March and lunched with Fidel Castro.
But since Aug. 29 — the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast, devastating New Orleans and much of southern Mississippi — Cuba hasn’t been on the top of anybody’s agenda in the Bayou State.
“Not a word,” said a staffer at Blanco’s Ba-ton Rouge press office, when asked if anyone had discussed Louisiana’s Cuba policy lately.
“It really hasn’t been on our radar screen,” added Robert Landry, marketing director at the Port of New Orleans. “We’ve had more basic issues to contend with, like getting our workforce back and bringing vessels back into the port.”
CubaNews, which interviewed Blanco in May 2005 following her controversial trip to Cuba, returned to Louisiana last month as New Orleans residents continue to dig out from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
We learned that, despite a commitment by Cuban government agency Alimport to buy $15 million worth of Louisiana agricultural products, only $5 million in deals has actually been consummated.
That’s according to Felipe Martínez, project manager at the Louisiana Department of Economic Development (DED), which has organized three trade missions to the island.
“Cuba comes up on occasion, but it’s been put on the back burner because of the hurricane,” said Martínez. “We’re busy scramb-ling trying to make up for lost time. Our focus was changed by events following Katrina, but it’s still something we’re interested in.”
DED is co-sponsoring a U.S.-Cuba Energy Conference next month in Mexico City, and may also attend an Alimport negotiating round in the first half of 2006, said Martínez. He added that “I’ve been in touch with some folks who went on previous trips to see if there’s been any sales. At this point, we’re looking at a springtime trip, possibly in April.”
That doesn’t sit too well with George Fowler III, a New Orleans attorney and director of the local office of the Cuban American National Foundation. Fowler strongly opposed Blanco’s trip to Cuba at the time, and continues to lobby against relaxing the embargo.
“We’re hearing that the governor’s office is still planning to support trade with Cuba,” he said. “Considering that New Orleans was hit by a hurricane, I find that a little lacking in priorities when there’s so much work to be done here. I wouldn’t waste five minutes on Cuba.”
Less than a mile from Fowler’s 30th-floor office on Poydras Street sits the Port of New Orleans, which at one time lived off of rice and sugar trade between the U.S. and Cuba. These days, said Landry, “Cuba is a fraction of 1%” of the port’s total overseas trade.
“We do 10 million tons of general cargo a year, so even if Cuba was 100,000 tons — which they’re not — that wouldn’t even be a tenth of a percent,” the port official said.
“On the other hand, before the revolution, Cuba was our No. 1 trading partner. While a lot of that was sugar, we obviously did a lot of exports to Cuba, everything from farm equipment and manufactured goods to cars. New Orleans was the port for the industrial Midwest, and if you had food products coming in, typically you brought it into New Orleans.”
He added: “We try to maintain all of our trade relationships, but obviously after Katrina we had some startup issues that preceded all of our commercial issues. We had to put those commercial relations on hold until we made sure operations were up and running, which they are.
“Our trade with Cuba was primarily in the frozen poultry area, and the cold storage facilities were hit pretty hard by Katrina. They should be back in operation by mid-January, and hopefully soon, we may see some trade with Cuba resume.”
Landry said that prior to Katrina, several poultry vessels carrying 3,000 to 4,000 tons each of frozen chicken and turkey parts sailed for Havana every quarter from New Orleans, translating into total poultry shipments of perhaps 25,000 tons a year from his port.
Since Katrina, however, no vessel has sailed to Cuba from New Orleans. Nevertheless, asked if Cuba is all but forgotten in the post-Katrina chaos, Landry said “absolutely not.”
“We’re not going to let this die,” said Landry, noting that he’s already put in his application to travel to Cuba sometime in 2006.
“I believe New Orleans is geographically positioned to handle the goods that Cuba will need,” he said. “It’s much easier to bring farm equipment and industrial machinery down via rail or barge and put it on vessels, as opposed to trying to send it all the way to Miami, where you have a much longer inland transportation voyage at a much higher cost.”
The real opportunity for New Orleans, however, will come once the embargo is over.
“We’re not taking a political stand. We are trying to take advantage of whatever is currently allowed by law,” said Landry. “If we don’t do it now, the Port of Mobile is going to do it, or maybe Houston. There’s nothing to be served by us sitting on the sidelines.”