Port of Palm Beach readies for business with Cuba
Posted: 28 November 2009 11:49 AM   [ Ignore ]
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By Paul Quinlan | Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

In the 1950s, before Fidel Castro came to power, goods bound to and from Cuba poured through the Port of Palm Beach, where the West India Fruit and Steamship Co. carried as many as 10,000 loaded railcars to the small Caribbean nation every year.

But that business soon vanished when the U.S. sought to banish trade with Cuba in 1960 after Fidel Castro’s revolution. By June the following year, the West Indian Fruit and Steamship Co. had put its six freighters and automobile ferries up for sale after 40 years in business.

Today, nearly half a century later, the Port of Palm Beach has struggled trying to reestablish its long-lost dominance over the U.S.-Cuba trade route, despite hopes that the Obama administration could further loosen or end the embargo.

“We were once the largest trading partner,” said Executive Director Manny Almira, whose family fled the island when he was 10 years old. “Why can’t we be that again?”

Hamstrung in efforts to obtain U.S. and Cuban permission to travel to the island and meet with trade officials, port leaders find themselves waiting in a long, growing, unmoving line of companies trying to do business with Cuba.

Almira landed a three-month license to travel from the U.S. but could not obtain the more elusive Cuban visa in time to attend a trade show in Havana this month. Both governments are said to be swamped with applications from those interested in traveling there.

Sixty-eight U.S. companies did attend the Havana International Fair 2009, although many more — like Port of Palm Beach officials — tried and failed to obtain travel permits, said Jay Brickman, a vice president at Crowley Maritime Corp.

Last year, American companies sold $700 million worth of food to Cuba under embargo exemptions that apply to humanitarian and agricultural goods, making the U.S. the island’s top food supplier and fifth-largest trading partner in 2008.

Crowley Maritime does a regular freight business with the island, exporting mostly bulk shipments of grains and beans to Cuba through Port Everglades. The company’s relationship took more than 20 years to establish, said Brickman, who began traveling to the island on behalf of Crowley in 1978 before they finally began trading in 2001.

Brickman, who now goes back and forth regularly, said Cubans officials are inundated with applications and have adopted the sort of standoffish attitude that one might expect of a girl who has come to realize she’s the prettiest one at the dance.

“It was a question of, ‘who are all these people, and where have they been all my life,’” Brickman said.

Cuba is in no hurry to expand its imports, as the global economic slowdown has caused the nation’s biggest economic drivers — nickel exports, foreign remittances and tourism — to fall.

What’s more, expanding trade with the U.S. has taken a back seat to doing more business with such countries as Venezuela, Iran, China, Brazil and Canada, Brickman said.

“Five or six years ago, it used to be the top of their priority list,” Brickman said. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

The U.S. posture toward Cuba has changed dramatically as support of the embargo has wavered among younger generations of Cubans. Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, of Havana, called the trade restrictions “clumsy and anachronistic” in a recent post that also said: “I am struck, however, that on market shelves the labels and the four packs reveal what the anti-imperialist rhetoric hides: much of what we eat says, ‘Made in USA.’ “

The Obama administration this year rolled back restrictions and opened lines of communication previously closed.

But bullish capitalists who once expected the eventual end of the embargo would suddenly lead McDonald’s restaurants and Home Depots to pop up on Cuban street corners say another alternative is more likely: The embargo falls without any significant political changes in Cuba.

“It’s something we never focused on in the past, but frankly, it’s a much more realistic analysis,” said Bruce Jay Colan, chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

If that happened, uncertainty over the stability and predictability of Cuban law and government would temper investment, Colan said.

Miami’s airport would likely remain the primary U.S. gateway for passengers bound for Cuba, Colan said. A chamber report notes that in May 1959, there were 102 scheduled weekly flights between Miami and Havana — almost double the number that came and went from all other U.S. cities combined.

Almira hopes that same precedent applies to shipping from the Port of Palm Beach.

He is reapplying for a U.S. license to travel to Cuba, with the hope of securing a visa from Cuban officials soon afterward. When the door opens, he said he wants the port to be ready.

“It’s sooner than ever before, in my opinion.”

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