Jenalia Moreno | Chron.com
For the first time in nearly half a century, a shipping line will provide weekly transport from Houston’s docks to Cuba.
Local officials view this as the beginning of increased exports to a Latin American nation that still faces a partial trade embargo with the U.S.
“What we’re witnessing is the important first step,” said Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership.
Shipping company CMA CGM of Marseille, France, recently began hauling food, medical products and other items allowed by the U.S. government to two Cuban ports from Houston. Every week, the vessels will stop in Kingston, Jamaica, before moving on to Havana and Santiago de Cuba from Houston’s Bayport terminal.
“This would definitely be easier for our people to get their product to Cuba out of the port and into a potential other market,” said Ron Hufford, executive vice president of the Texas Forestry Association, which hopes to sell railroad ties, utility poles, furniture and other items. Two years ago, a top Cuban official toured Texas mills to see the state’s wood products, Hufford said.
CMA CGM received a U.S. government license through October 2011 to move cargo to Cuba from the U.S. Texas officials have been urging a carrier to seek such approval for years.
For Texas, this means another market for some goods, and for Cuba, the new shipping route means faster delivery of products. Instead of waiting weeks or months for goods from other continents, Texas goods can arrive in Cuba much sooner.
“Shipping from Texas, they can pretty much do just-in-time delivery of produce,” said Cynthia Thomas, president of Dallas consulting company TriDimension Strategies. She’s visited Cuba 40 times with clients and trade missions.
She said Texas companies can market their goods as fresher than their competitors’ products, which may have sat on a boat longer.
Prior to this new route, Texas producers seeking regular service had to haul their Cuban-bound products to Florida ports. That added costs and delays. Or companies had to charter an entire vessel for the occasional shipment to Cuba.
“That would make them less competitive,” said Ricky Kunz, the port’s vice president of origination.
In 2000, the U.S. began allowing Americans to sell agricultural and medical products to Cuba. Since then, food makers, exporters and port officials have traveled there to try to convince Cubans to buy from them.
“When a marketplace opens up, everybody wants to get into the action,” said Port Chairman Jim Edmonds, who represented the port on a trade mission in 2005. “Cuba is attractive to us from the standpoint of its proximity.”
Port officials have visited Cuba a few times already and plan to attend a Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance meeting that will be held at the partnership in March.
The island, 900 miles from Houston, was once a buyer of Texas rice and other agricultural products until the Kennedy administration imposed a trade embargo.
In 2008, $143 million worth of food and agricultural products moved to Cuba through Texas ports, nearly 50 percent higher than in 2007, said Parr Rosson, extension economist of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service. But exports from the U.S. to Cuba slowed because of hurricanes that pummeled the island in 2008; the decline in prices of nickel, one of Cuba’s exports; and a decline in tourism because of the global economic slowdown.
In 2008, 274,000 tons of goods were shipped from Houston to Cuba. That’s a “minuscule” amount of the port’s business, Kunz said, since 225 million tons typically move through the port annually. But the port hopes to expand that business.
With the Obama administration already easing some of the restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba, Moseley said: “We’re very optimistic that the embargo could be lifted during the first term of the administration, if not sooner. The effect is going to be tremendous.”
If the embargo is lifted, he predicted Houston companies would sell goods for Cuba’s energy business and the rebuilding of its roads and homes.