Posted on Sat, May. 12, 2007
PORT OF MIAMI | TUNNEL PROJECT
County officials may overlook Cuban links
Faced with losing $600 million over a contractor's ties to Cuba, some
Cuban-American commissioners are wary of killing a port tunnel deal.
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ AND MATTHEW I. PINZUR
The plan to build the $1 billion Port of Miami tunnel has stirred
controversy over a French contractor's business ties to Cuba, but on
Friday several Cuban-American politicians said that alone shouldn't halt
An affiliate of the state's preferred tunnel builder, Bouygues Travaux
Publics, has built 11 resort hotels in joint ventures with the Cuban
military since 1999.
Two influential Miami-Dade County commissioners who represent large
Cuban-American constituencies said they might not have a legal leg to
stand on if they try to block funding for the tunnel for purely
''I would have to do my duty as a county commissioner, but my Cuban
heart would hurt tremendously,'' said Commissioner Natacha Seijas.
''I don't feel comfortable with'' Bouygues' Cuba connection, said
Commissioner José ''Pepe'' Diaz. “But I don't think it's within our
purview to do something with it.''
Diaz blanched at the idea of abandoning a deal that has been structured
to put most of the onus for cost overruns on the private vendors, not
county and city of Miami taxpayers.
''We have to make sure that tunnel gets built,'' said Diaz, whose West
Miami-Dade district is home to the largest number of port-related
trucking and warehousing businesses.
But one tunnel opponent says the Bouygues ties to Cuba will provide more
ammunition for people who already thought the project was too expensive
for taxpayers to stomach.
''It already was a very tough issue to sell,'' said City Commissioner
Tomás Regalado. “Now with this baggage, it'll be tougher.''
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who have
previously supported the tunnel plan, did not respond to requests for
Other members of the exile community argued that Bouygues has violated
the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which extended parts of the trade embargo to
''I think this is essentially a legal issue. Under Helms-Burton, they
can't operate in the U.S.,'' said Antonio Jorge, a Florida International
University political economy professor. “Obviously, it has other kinds
of ramifications: politically, emotionally.''
Dozens of callers to Cuban talk radio shows expressed similar sentiments
If local politicians decide to kill their part of the tunnel deal,
they'll have to do it for reasons that extend beyond the tunneling
firm's ties to Cuba.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially barred local governments
from conducting foreign policy. The high court declared unconstitutional
a Massachusetts city's ban on firms that conducted business with
Myanamar, formerly known as Burma.
After the Massachusetts decision, a Miami federal judge permanently
enjoined Miami-Dade from enforcing local ordinances that barred vendors
from conducting business with Cuba.
That injunction is still the prevailing law today, said County Attorney
''The commission can approve or not approve any contract, keeping in
mind that the federal court has ruled that the reason cannot be simply
because a firm does business with Cuba,'' Greenberg said.
The tunnel — which would channel thousands of trucks a day from the
MacArthur Causeway to the port on Dodge Island — would be built under a
unique public-private partnership.
A team headed by Bouygues and the Australia-based investment bankers
Babcock & Brown are prepared to finance, design, build, operate and
maintain the tunnel over a 35-year period.
The state, county and city governments would repay the team using an
array of tax and bond dollars.
What happens if the county and city pull out of the project because of
Bouygues' Cuba ties?
Johnny Martinez, chief of the Miami-area Florida Department of
Transportation office, said the state will not be turning to the No.
2-ranked team: “With no money, there is no deal.''
Other DOT officials have said the agency would take its $600 million out
of Miami-Dade and try to leverage it for other desperately needed
transportation projects in other parts of Florida.
Other projects that could get the money include adding lanes to
Interstate 595 in Broward and Interstate 75 in Southwest Florida or
accelerating construction of a public-private beltway around Jacksonville.
Even if the tunnel deal is ultimately ratified, Bouygues could still
face legal problems in Washington.
Miami lawyer Nicolas Gutierrez has asked the State Department about
revoking the visas of Bouygues executives, employees and major
shareholders under Helms-Burton.
Gutierrez represents hundreds of the South Florida descendants of the
Sanchez-Hill family whose land in eastern Cuba was expropriated in the
early 1960s by the Castro regime.
Jean Francois Lalonde, a Bouygues executive in Montreal, said the firm
that is bidding on the tunnel has never conducted business in Cuba.
But Gutierrez and other trade embargo experts said this is a typical
tactic employed by multinational firms that set up affiliates to protect
themselves from liability issues.