By DAVID TORTORANO | THE SUN HERALD
GULFPORT - Concerned over inroads into trade with Cuba by neighboring states, the director of the Mississippi State Port at Gulfport is traveling to Cuba next week and hopes to get an agreement that will guarantee the same level of shipments in 2004 as in 2003.
Don Allee, the port’s executive director, said he’ll leave for Cuba Sunday and will return later in the week after talking to officials from Alimport, the Cuban agency that handles purchasing food.
He’ll be attending a trade meeting in Havana with 135 U.S. companies and “entities” and 250 Cuban representatives.
Allee expects to reach a “gentleman’s agreement” with Alimport to ship from Gulfport in 2004 as much as it shipped in 2003.
The value of goods shipped from Gulfport to Cuba in a year is about $20 million, Allee said.
He said he considers the trip important because of competition from neighboring states. He’s concerned about the port’s ability to maintain the volume of shipments because of the inroads being made by Texas, Alabama and Florida.
Allee said he treats every port that’s in a position to trade with Cuba as a threat, but he did single out Alabama during the board meeting because “I have seen how aggressive Alabama has become.”
Delegations from Mobile have made trips to Cuba, and the Port City has ties there that go back many years. Mobile was the first U.S. city to pair up with a sister city in Cuba, choosing Havana because Mobile founder Pierre le Moyne D’Iberville is buried there.
Allee said Alabama has made it clear that it’s specifically targeting the Cuban market.
“There’s no reason for us to have to relinquish this business when we were there first, “he said about the trade that’s been going on for two years.
Direct trade between the U.S. and Cuba has been banned since Fidel Castro seized power and installed a communist government. But a law passed by Congress in 2000 allows U.S. companies to ship food and medicine to Cuba.
Two years ago one of the first direct food shipments between the U.S. and Cuba in 40 years left Gulfport: 500 tons of frozen chickens.
In June it became the first port to ship Southern yellow pine to Cuba, then later in the summer about 140 head of cattle left Gulfport bound for Cuba.