By STEVE HUETTEL | St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
The first cargo ship to leave Tampa for Cuba in decades is scheduled to depart today. Its owners hope for monthly trips.
TAMPA - The 225-foot H.L. Sahlman usually attracts little notice at Tampa’s port as it picks up small loads of meat and fresh produce for customers in the eastern Caribbean and South America.
But the tiny freighter was the center of attention Thursday as a crane lifted carton after carton of frozen chicken on board for a high-profile destination: the capital of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
The vessel, scheduled to leave today, will be the first to depart a public dock in Tampa for Cuba in more than four decades. And the ship’s owners are prepared to make monthly trips between Tampa and Havana if they can attract enough cargo business to support it.
Our hope is that local companies can do business with Cuba and ship out of Tampa,” said Daniel Fernandez, a lawyer who helped arrange for Cuba’s state-owned import agency to use Carib Services of Tampa to deliver the shipment of more than 1.4-million pounds of chicken.
An exemption to the trade embargo on Cuba allows American companies licensed by the U.S. government to make cash-only sales of agricultural and medical goods to the island nation.
A few local companies have won contracts from Cuba, but most shipped their goods from other ports. Only four shipments to Cuba - all animal feed supplements - have moved through Tampa Bay: two from Port Manatee and two from phosphate company docks in east Hillsborough County.
Tampa Port Authority officials visited Cuba in July and got a warm reception from Alimport, the Cuban agency that buys imports and contracts with shippers.
Alimport is eager to move goods through Tampa, Fernandez said, and having a shipping service here could make local companies’ goods more cost competitive.
“This means jobs for (local people) and money for the economy,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Frank, a port commissioner who went on the trip to Cuba. “And it means people in Cuba can get their goods cheaper.”
Alimport saved 30 cent per pound on the chicken by using Tampa instead of another gulf port, said Mike Mauricio, president of Florida Produce of Hillsborough County, who connected supplier Louis Dreyfus with Carib Services. He didn’t know how much Alimport paid.
Florida Produce has sold nearly $700,000 in food to Cuba in the past 18 months through ports such as Jacksonville and Gulfport, Miss. But Mauricio hopes to sell locally grown tomatoes and strawberries that Carib Services can take to Havana.
The local shipper’s one vessel makes a five-week route from Tampa to Haiti, St. Vincent, Grenada, Guyana and back, carrying foodstuffs for small customers, general manager Steve Mekdeci said.