CubaNews / March 2009
By Larry Luxner
Once restrictions on Cuban-American travel are rolled back to pre-2004 levels, cargo as well as passenger volume is likely to take off — and Mercedes Costa says she’s ready. A longtime air-cargo executive, Costa started Caribbean Direct International (CDI) in August 2004 after leaving rival IBC Airways, where she developed a unique Miami-Cuba route five years earlier.
“Right now, cargo volume to Cuba is limited,” with competition only between her company and IBC, said Costa. “But as things start opening up, I’m sure others will want to get in on this. The Cuban government will still control a lot of it, as with the passenger market. Once they lose control, this may create a logistics problem for them.”
Costa currently moves 8,000-10,000 lbs a week between Miami and Havana, thanks to a cargo transportation license issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“I do gift packs for families, diplomatic pouches for shipments to the U.S. Interests Section, and a lot of perishables. human re-mains and food samples,” she told CubaNews.
CDI uses Shorts and Caravan DC-3 cargo planes, flying Wednesdays and Fridays at an ETD of 7 a.m. Costa wouldn’t disclose her rates, citing competitive reasons. She did say that if restrictions are lifted, shipments of gift packs will definitely go up.
“Both cargo and passengers will be affected. One of my largest customers used to send between 1,800 and 2,300 lbs per week to Hav-ana. That same person is struggling to make 500 to 800 lbs a week now,” said Costa, who’s also licensed to transport medical supplies like wheelchairs, walkers and commodes.
On the return flight from Havana, CDI brings back music CDs, diplomatic pouches and four to five human remains a month.
One area for potential growth doesn’t require the lifting of any restrictions. Costa said she’s launching a new project aimed at Cuba’s rather large diplomatic community.
“We’re going to do a cocktail party for 50 to 60 embassies with Havanatur, my counterpart over there,” Costa told CubaNews. “We’ve been working with the U.S. Interests Section from the beginning, moving diplomatic pouches for them. We’ve also worked with the United Nations [mission in Havana] and with the embassies of Slovakia, Germany, Japan, Canada and others.”
Costa said there’s a lucrative business in bringing office supplies, computer equipment, books, furniture, electronics and other necessities by air for those embassies which are approved — and all of it is totally exempt from the embargo.
“They can buy anything they wish,” said Costa. “I provide the airway bill and the information, and when the shipment arrives, they clear it [through Cuban customs] and take it out. It’s totally authorized under U.S. law.”
CDI says it will consolidate embassy purchases as well as any other remittances up until the time of their arrival in Havana.
The company will receive, label, ship and facilitate all necessary documentation needed to expedite the clearance process (franquizia) in Havana prior to the shipment’s arrival. Costa has a 10,000-sq-foot warehouse at Miami International Airport as well as an administrative office in nearby Coral Gables.