Posted on Monday, 04.08.13
Miami-Cuba seaborne shipping stops after big start
By CHRISTINE ARMARIO
MIAMI — It was two weeks before Christmas, and Robinson Perez had
bundles of gifts ready for his family in Cuba: A giant plastic Barbie
doll and stuffed animals for his two daughters. For his pregnant sister,
a wooden crib and baby clothes.
Perez could not go to Cuba for the holidays, so he chose the next best
thing: Maritime shipping from Miami to Havana.
The freight service was launched in July by International Port Corp. to
significant fanfare. It was the first direct maritime shipment of
humanitarian goods between Miami and Havana since the U.S. economic
embargo began against Fidel Castro's communist government five decades ago.
Thousands of customers began sending goods like medicine, toiletries and
food at lower cost than by airplane. Others began sending big items that
had been difficult to ship by air: washing machines, refrigerators and
housing construction supplies.
Less than a year later, however, the service has ground to a halt, The
Associated Press has learned. The ship had mechanical problems, the
International Port Corp. was sued for allegedly not paying its bills and
the Cuban government's package delivery company provided slow service.
Customers like Perez were left frustrated as their packages took much
longer than expected to arrive at their Cuban relatives' homes.
Candy canes and cookies that families shipped in December for Christmas
and New Year's Day arrived closer to Valentine's Day.
"They said it would take much less time," Perez said. "But well, they
had to wait."
The roots of the operation developed in in 2009 when President Barack
Obama issued the first of several executive orders expanding travel and
the flow of humanitarian goods between the U.S. and Cuba. Restrictions
on how many times Cuban-Americans could travel to the island were
lifted. The amount of money they could send in remittances was raised.
Larry Nussbaum, president of the International Port Corp., said he saw
it as an opportunity to tap into a growing market.
"It was going to be a tremendous amount of volume, and the current
providers were not organized properly," Nussbaum said.
The time appeared right. People who have arrived recently in the U.S.
from Cuba tend to have strong family ties to the island, are more likely
to send remittances and visit. And while Miami-based companies that sent
packages to Cuba once were threatened or even bombed by anti-Castro
groups, that violence has largely ended.
Cuban-Americans had already been sending parcels to their relatives on
the island, but primarily through often illegal third-country routes and
"mules" – people who travel to the island with packages they then
deliver for a fee.
Nussbaum said he coordinated with the Coast Guard and Cuban authorities
to charter a ship both sides could approve. They chose the Ana Cecilia,
a medium-sized cargo ship painted red, white and blue – the colors of
the U.S. and Cuban flags – owned by Miami Epic Shipping.
International Port Corp. also set up a contract with CubaPACK, Cuba's
government-owned delivery service, to deliver packages in Havana within
a week to 10 days, and to the rest of the island within 15 to 20.
On the ship's inaugural voyage in July, the sailing was not smooth. When
the Ana Cecilia approached Havana's port, it wasn't initially allowed to
dock because some paperwork hadn't been approved, International Port
Corp. spokesman Leonardo Sanchez said. It docked the next morning.
At first, the deliveries arrived within the time CubaPACK had promised.
But then it started to take longer. The weekly departures International
Port had advertised from Miami to Havana were also scaled back to
Sanchez and Nussbaum said the delays are an infrastructure problem: More
goods have been sent than Cuban authorities are able to quickly process.
The Cubans use paper rather than computers to track and deliver the items.
"We've been frustrated ourselves with the service," Nussbaum said.
The Associated Press followed the Christmas packages Perez sent from
Miami to their arrival and delivery in Havana.
The problems began early, not long after customers began arriving at a
white terminal building to drop off their packages. Four days before the
ship's scheduled departure on Dec. 12, Ramon Mesa, co-owner of Miami
Epic Shipping, emailed Nussbaum demanding $250,679 in back payment for
the chartering of the Ana Cecilia. He gave International Port three days
to pay. If not, he would remove the boat from the dock.
Epic wasn't the only creditor demanding payment. The owner of the dock
and warehouse facility, Marine Shaw Terminal, said the company owed him
$30,000 in rent and has filed a lawsuit as well.
"The owner needed to come up with funds or the vessel wouldn't go," said
Cliff Kornfield, an attorney for Mesa.
International Port officials gave a different explanation for the
delayed departure. They said the Coast Guard had discovered a leak and
the ship couldn't sail. Coast Guard documents show inspectors found
seawater entering the ship in late November.
Mesa confirmed there had been a leak, but said he repaired it within a day.
"I had remedied it," Mesa said. "And if my boat couldn't go I could get
another boat for them to take, if they had paid me in time."
Instead, the International Port opted to send the packages on two cargo
planes. Sanchez said they departed the same day the ship was scheduled
to go out. On the cargo planes, they were able to send large items as well.
In Cuba, Robinson's 20-year-old sister, Maipu Marin Lopez, was first
told the items would arrive by Dec. 29. But that day came and went.
In mid-January, the first of the packages Robinson sent arrived. The
others came in bit by bit. The final item, the frame of a baby crib, did
not arrive until the first week of February – more than a month late,
though still in time for the baby.
"The most important thing is the crib for the baby, and I was upset it
had not arrived," she said.
Back in Miami, the dock where the Ana Cecilia once departed for Havana
is now empty. The building where Robinson sent his packages from is
closed. A sign advertising shipments to Cuba is gone.
Sanchez says they are no longer collecting packages at the terminal
because they have set up new sites around the city.
In fact, court documents show the International Port was served an
eviction complaint in January. Neil Ruben, an attorney for Shaw Marine
Terminal, said International Port voluntarily vacated the property. A
lawsuit claiming the company still owes rent dating back to October is
winding through the courts. So is another filed by Epic Shipping.
Sanchez and Nussbaum said International Port dispute the claims in both
lawsuits, though neither would go into detail.
"I assure you that everything is in order and this will all come out in
the litigation," Nussbaum said.
Families are still sending packages by plane, but the dream of maritime
shipping from Miami to Havana has, at least for the moment, sailed into
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this
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