Julian Aguila | Texas Tribune
Texas is poised to become the nation’s leading trade partner with communist Cuba after the Port of Houston Authority gained permission for its container vessels to sail to the island nation.
Trade experts are confident that Texas will be now able to carve out for itself a larger slice of the United States’ total trade with Cuba, which was estimated at $521 million in 2009, down from $710 million in 2008. Last year, $85 million dollars in goods was sent to Cuba from Texas, a distant second to Louisiana’s $241 million. Parr Rosson, the director of Texas A&M’s Center for North American Studies, says that a previous policy prohibited container cargo making its way to Cuba from any state other than Florida — and trekking container-sized cargo to Florida for shipment, he says, was not cost effective.
But the recent policy change, approved weeks ago by the U.S. Commerce Department, the Bureau of Industry and Security and Cuba’s state-run Alimport import agency, means that TEU (twenty-foot equivalent) containers and FEU (forty-foot equivalent) loaded with food staples and other approved products can move through the port.
“We are thrilled. This is the first time in a very long time that we have been able to move cargo directly from Texas,” says Ricky W. Kunz, the vice president of the Port of Houston Authority’s Origination Division. “This will allow those exporters who have licensed commodities … to be more competitive with states that are east and northeast of here.”
The policy change came to light after French shipping company CMA-CGM, which has a U.S. office in Norfolk, Virginia, made the agreement with Alimport and was granted a two-year license. The news was announced to a group of trade representatives who congregated in Houston on April 21 for the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance’s workshop on trade with the island. It came as a surprise to many, underscoring the fact that the United States’ easing of trade restrictions with Cuba has unfolded quietly.
The Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 opened restrictive trade with Cuba for the first time since the U.S. enacted an embargo against the communist regime of former Cuban President Fidel Castro. In January 2002, 30 metric tons of U.S. wheat was shipped to Cuba in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle — the first shipment since the embargo, says Jeff Moseley, the president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. Since then, the U.S. has become Cuba’s fifth-leading trade partner.
The Houston port’s new development should only bolster U.S. and Texas trade. “We would just very respectfully say that, as Houston goes, so goes the state of Texas. … The port of Houston is ranked first in the U.S. in foreign-water-born tonnage and second in the U.S. in total tonnage,” says Moseley. “And Texas has been No. 1 in foreign trade in the United States since 2002.”
The Future of Cuba
The U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering H.R. 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which would open up travel to Cuba and loosen financial restrictions on trade. Current policy mandates that Cuba pre-pay for its goods via a third nation’s banking system — a retaliatory measure imposed by the U.S. in 2005 after Cuba jailed dissidents and blocked anti-government propaganda, Rosson explains, The bill, which awaits action by the House Committee on Agriculture, would save businesses money by allowing them to circumvent foreign banks that currently charge to transfer the money.
“The potential economic impact on our nation and region is really too great not to proactively explore restoration of trade with Cuba,” says Moseley.
Proponents of easing trade restrictions argue that expanded tourism would bolster the Cuban economy, allowing the nation to improve its famously deteriorated infrastructure. The money could be funneled to fix buildings, pave roads, fix plumbing and rehabilitate farmlands whose soil is too unhealthy to produce crops. Rosson estimates that tourism to Cuba produces $2.2 billion for the country annually, second only to its main export, nickel, which hauls in $2.7 billion. But he cautions that the Cuban people will have their say.
“So far their response to [the proposed loosening of travel and trade restrictions] has been a little bit lukewarm,” he says. “I bet deep down they would like to see this happen, but at the same time they’ve seen a lot of these things move through Congress before, but with no action. They are also a little bit disenchanted with the current administration. I think they were expecting bigger changes.”
The Cubans aren’t necessarily waiting on the U.S. Moseley says Cuba is now listed on the Virtuoso Luxe report’s list of top emerging destinations for travel, and Rosson describes fierce competition in agriculture sales to Cuba from Canada, Brazil, Venezuela and China. In an ironic twist, the U.S. also faces a challenge in its latest capitalist venture in the Caribbean from a country it fought for nearly a decade over communism: the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The country, an emerging model of socialism and capitalism blended together, is a main exporter of rice to Cuba.