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As Cuba trade beckons, U.S. ports jostle to become the gateway

As U.S.-Cuban relations emerge from a deep freeze, U.S. port cities desiring to become gateways to the island are jostling for advantage.

Leading the pack is Tampa, Fla., home to the second-largest Cuban-American population in the United States. But port cities like Mobile, Ala., New Orleans and Houston are not sitting still.

Business leaders in Tampa visited Havana for four days last month, touting their city’s historical ties to Cuba and positioning the city to become the “new Miami,” which for half a century has been the de facto capital of Cuban exiles.

“Before Miami was even a fishing village, there was trade between Tampa and Havana,” said Ronald A. Christaldi, an attorney who is chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Sparking the commotion among U.S. ports was the announcement Dec. 17 by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro that the United States and Cuba would move to re-establish diplomatic relations after more than five decades of tension. Cuba was removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism on Friday, and diplomats from the two countries are negotiating an agreement to reopen embassies.

A U.S. trade embargo remains in effect and can only be lifted by Congress, leaving some people to think the intense interest by U.S. port cities over potential trade with Cuba is premature. The Cuban market will remain small for years.

“You’re talking about an island with the population of Pennsylvania and they are bankrupt,” said Richard Wainio, the former director of the Port of Tampa and a onetime Panama Canal executive. U.S. port cities are “hugely overenthusiastic. . . . There’s nothing of significance to trade, unless you sell frozen chicken or grain.”

But others say that they are taking a longer view, aware that it could take years for U.S. laws to change and even longer for a middle class to develop in Cuba that would power growth. Once that occurs, however, Cuba will have an intense appetite for building materials, technology, health care equipment and other goods, they say.

Tampa says it earned the mantle as gateway to Cuba in the late 1800s.

It was in 1886 when a Cuban immigrant, Vicente Martínez Ybor, opened the first cigar factory in Tampa, and Tampa’s Ybor City area still retains brick factories and Cuban eateries. Charismatic Cuban national hero José Martí raised a million dollars from cigar workers in Ybor City in 1893 to finance Cuba’s independence drive.

The José Martí Park in Tampa is still owned by the Cuban government.

When Teddy Roosevelt prepared to lead the cavalry unit known as the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, they gathered in Tampa in June 1898 before boarding the ship Yucatan and sailing toward Cuba.

Even as the contours of future U.S.-Cuban relations remain blurry, Tampa says it wants to play a leading role.

“Whatever is allowed by law, we want to jump in and take advantage of,” said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and a leader of more than 30 Tampa business representatives who visited Havana May 12-16. He spoke to a reporter in the garden area behind Havana’s iconic Hotel Nacional.

Tampa business leaders distance themselves from the entrenched antagonism in Miami toward Cuba’s socialist government, rooted among exiles who lost property and saw families torn apart following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

“The large Cuban population in Tampa is of a different mindset,” Christaldi said, noting recent actions by its elected leaders.

Tampa City Council members passed a resolution April 16 urging the White House to choose Tampa as a location should the U.S. and Cuba sign any agreement on American soil that would normalize relations between the countries.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce also passed a unanimous resolution calling on Cuba to re-establish a consulate in Tampa, where it maintained a presence until the United States broke off relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961.

“They can take advantage of political reluctance in Miami,” said Johannes Werner, editor of cubastandard.com, an online information service on business in Cuba. Werner operates out of Sarasota, Fla.

Other Gulf of Mexico ports are polishing trade ties with Cuba, which saw some rejuvenation starting in late 2001 when the administration of President George W. Bush eased the trade embargo to permit U.S. companies to export agricultural goods to the island for humanitarian purposes.

Executives from the Port of Houston are hoping to visit Havana soon to display their continued interest in boosting trade with the island.

“All we’re trying to do is be ready for the day when the laws change,” said Ricky W. Kunz, managing director of trade, development and marketing for the port.

“Forget the fact that (the Cubans) are cash-strapped right now,” Kunz said. “Once trade opens, there’ll be various organizations that will be quick to loan them money.”

New Orleans also claims historical ties with Cuba and a distribution network up and down the Mississippi River system critical to the export of grain.

“Prior to the embargo, the largest trading partner with Cuba was the Port of New Orleans,” said its port director, Gary LaGrange.

LaGrange said the U.S. laws and regulations that enforce the embargo won’t be lifted quickly, nor will Cuba be in a position to buy much for some time.

“It’s not going to be a light switch flipping overnight,” LaGrange said. “It will take some time for Cuba to get a middle class established.”

But once the U.S. embargo is lifted, New Orleans could feel an immediate impact, he said. Within the first five years, LaGrange said, analysts believe the city will add 7,000 to 12,000 jobs ranging from dockworkers and customhouse brokers to railway crews, truck drivers and freight forwarders.

LaGrange said New Orleans, with its easy access to grain belt states and to the U.S. energy sector, could be complementary to Tampa, which offers construction materials that Cuba might one day need.

“I see it almost as a tossup, if you will, between Tampa and New Orleans,” LaGrange said. “Their market area and ours are totally different. I see us almost more as allies.”

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