DUANE MARSTELLER | Bradenton Herald Staff Writer
David McDonald, left, executive director of the Port of Manatee, and Cuban Pedro Alvarez, president of the Cuban Alimport Food Company, are shown Wednesday after signing a trade agreement in Havana.
MANATEE - Cuban trade officials pledged Wednesday to send more cargo through Port Manatee, making it the first port in Florida to secure such a promise.
Midway through their five-day trade mission to Cuba, Manatee Port officials signed a memorandum of understanding with Cuba that they say will result in more Cuba-bound commodities crossing the port’s docks.
“The memorandum of understanding clearly shows Cuba recognizes the potential of Port Manatee,” port director David McDonald said from Havana, where the goodwill agreement was signed. “This is a major step forward toward more trade between us.”
Port Manatee also learned Wednesday that it will handle the first shipment of Florida beef cattle to the island nation in more than 40 years.
J.P. Wright & Co. said it would use the port to export 250 head of cattle - including 80 from a Parrish ranch - to Cuba early next year.
“We want to provide the Cuban people with top quality beef,” said Jim Strickland, whose Strickland Ranch will send 80 Brangus heifers to Cuba. “I believe the similar climate in Cuba, and the short sea time, will suit the cattle well.”
In the agreement with Cuba, import agency Alimport said it would review its shipping schedule to send cargo through Port Manatee. The Cuban agency also pledged to continue shipments of an animal-feed supplement through the port and work toward adding more shipments.
A shipment of the supplement, dicalcium phosphate, last January was the port’s first Cuba-bound trade in its 33-year history. The port handled a second shipment last month, and is a candidate to handle another later this year.
Cuban officials also agreed to consider using the port for other commodities, including fruits, vegetables, lumber and paper.
“They’re also very interested in tomatoes coming out of Manatee County,” McDonald said.
In return, port officials said they will recruit and cooperate with local, state and national businesses already exporting to Cuba or are interested in doing so, as well as offer them competitive rates to use the port.
Ports in Alabama and Texas have signed similar agreements, but Port Manatee is the first one in Florida, said Pedro Alvarez, Alimport’s president.
“The port’s geographic location makes it well positioned for shipping U.S. exports to Cuba,” Alvarez said.
Port Manatee is 305 nautical miles from Cuba, making it the closest U.S. port on the Gulf of Mexico to the Communist nation that has been under a U.S. trade embargo for four decades.
Despite that, 16 other U.S. ports - including four others in Florida - have beaten Port Manatee in shipping American food and agricultural goods to Cuba since Congress allowed their sale under an exemption passed three years ago.
Port Manatee’s agreement offers no specifics on shipments. The next step is completing the details for future shipments, officials said.
“Our challenge now is to identify specific commodities and liner service to fulfill the opportunities,” said Steve Tyndal, the port’s director of trade development and special projects.
While port officials have said their trip was for business reasons, not politics, the agreement also includes a clause that indicates port officials agreed to work toward lifting U.S. trade and travel restrictions against Cuba.
“The parties renewed their mutual interest and intention to work towards free and unrestricted travel and trade relations between Cuba and the U.S. in the benefit of enhanced American purchases by Alimport and consequently increased business for the Port of Manatee and Tampa Bay,” the agreement said.
A U.S.-Cuba trade expert said Cuba is making such clauses a prerequisite of doing, and maintaining, business relations with the country.
“More and more, Alimport is requiring U.S. companies, U.S. organizations and U.S. port facilities to issue statements in opposition to U.S. policy toward Cuba and agree to lobby against U.S. policy toward Cuba in order to increase business,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a non-political trade group based in New York City. “These are far more political documents than commercial documents.”
But McDonald said that’s not the case with Port Manatee’s agreement.
“We support the president and we clearly support the guidelines that have been established by Congress and the president for legal trade to Cuba,” he said. “Under that template, we think that there are many opportunities our government has not provided us to learn more about trade relations with Cuba.”
McDonald, Tyndal and Joe McClash, the Manatee County Port Authority’s chairman, are scheduled to wrap up the trade mission on Friday. Tyndal is expected to make a return trip in mid-December, possibly with local business representatives joining him.