Port of Tampa leaders unsure how strongly to pursue Cuba ties
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff , Yvette C. Hammett | Tribune Staff
Published: May 24, 2015µ
TAMPA — Community leaders, excited over the prospect that Cuba and Tampa
will reconnect through business, are concerned that officials running
the region’s biggest economic engine are idling instead of jetting to
Cuba to lay the groundwork for future trade.
Port Tampa Bay should be actively courting the island nation ahead of
its competitors or risk getting left in the dust, they say.
With President Barack Obama working to knock down the wall of sanctions
built against Cuba when Communist dictator Fidel Castro took control
more than 50 years ago, now is the time to move, they say.
Some claim it’s all about politics, that port President and CEO Paul
Anderson isn’t making any direct moves for fear of backlash from
political allies who oppose fully opening up trade with Cuba.
Former Tampa Councilwoman Mary Mulhern recalled a conversation she had
with Anderson in 2010, shortly after he came to Port Tampa Bay, when she
broached the topic of Cuba with him. “Anderson immediately said
something like, ‘I know all about Cuba; I’m good friends with
Diaz-Balart.” She was referring to U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a South
Florida congressman who has been working to keep trade restrictions in
place between the U.S. and Cuba and stop ferries and cruises from going
to the island.
“He said this as a positive, and it was an indication to me that he
would not be doing anything about Cuba.”
Port officials are pushing back against that notion and any notion that
the port is not preparing for a new day with Cuba.
Anderson, during a short phone call with the Tribune last week, defended
the port’s lack of travel to Cuba, saying there is no inaction on the
port’s part in preparing for trade. To the contrary, he said, it is more
about protecting the port’s business strategy.
Anderson didn’t respond directly to a Tribune request for comment on the
theory that politics are holding him back, and his senior adviser called
that a silly concept. Anderson has friends on both sides of the aisle in
Congress whom he works with regularly, said port senior adviser Ed
Port officials have been invited on all three trips the Greater Tampa
Chamber of Commerce has made to Cuba in recent years, including one that
just took place. They have declined each invitation.
Those trips are more about culture and education than about establishing
business relations, Miyagishima said.
On the recent chamber trip, delegates met with the director of the Port
of Mariel, which is being rebuilt as a high-tech port, a hub for global
trade and commerce. The port director showed the Tampa delegation a map
with arrows pointing from Cuba to the Florida ports of Miami, Port
Everglades and Jacksonville. Port Tampa Bay was conspicuously absent.
“It raised concerns with our group when we saw that map,” said Tampa
chamber President Bob Rohrlack. “We realized we need to step up our
efforts on telling them why Tampa is a great location to do business.
They are very open to working with our port. They definitely want to
Rohrlack said the chamber is all for having Port Tampa Bay in the mix
when the Port of Mariel becomes part of a network of Gulf ports where
enormous post-Panamax ships — ships designed to traverse an expanded
Panama Canal — will offload onto smaller ships bound for berths in
Florida and elsewhere.
“We are keeping our cards close to our chest,” Anderson said. “We are
not out there telling the world our business strategy. I understand that
it might have been sexy and appealing to go on a trip to Cuba with the
chamber, but we want to make sure when we do go down there we can have a
constructive, structured dialog with the right people.”
In fact, he said, he thinks he already has done that by meeting in Tampa
on Jan. 30, 2014, with Cuba’s highest-ranking diplomat, Cuban Interests
Section Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez. Jesus Perez, first
secretary of the Cuban Interests Section, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor
were also at the meeting, he said. They laid out all that the port has
to offer, Anderson said.
Much of the work to establish business between Cuba’s port and here will
be up to private shipping companies, not Port Tampa Bay, Miyagishima
said. “The port’s responsibility as the largest economic engine in
central Florida is to create an environment so the private sector can
flourish. We look to the private sector” to lay the groundwork that will
make that happen.
A string of emails sent back and forth between port officials and
various private businesses, publications and government officials during
the past year shows that the port has been seeking business topics
related to Cuba and attending seminars across the state. They also show
the port’s interest in accommodating a ferry service between Tampa and Cuba.
In several of the emails, released last week to The Tampa Tribune under
a public records request, port officials talk about preparations for a
ferry berth at Port Tampa Bay. One email refers to an article published
in the Tribune in which Tampa Port Authority Commissioner Patrick Allman
speaks of the day when a ferry might haul cars and cattle from Tampa to
“I wonder if he is aware that the consultants are pooh-poohing (sic) the
idea because of the cost of rebuilding the slip,” writes Wade Elliott,
vice president of marketing and business development, in a June 2014
email to Bob Callahan, the port’s vice president of development.
In an email dated May 6, Elliott sent a link to Callahan for an article
on the U.S. allowing ferries to begin operating between Tampa and Cuba.
“We’re going to need those CBP (U.S. Customs & Border Patrol) ferry
guidelines and a terminal plan to accommodate them sooner than we
thought,” he wrote.
The emails also refer to an interest in possible cruise ship traffic
between Tampa and Cuba but note that Cuba probably isn’t prepared to
handle full-size cruise ships.
If a ferry service wants to operate out of Port Tampa Bay for trips to
Cuba, there is space available off Channelside Drive right now,
At least a handful of U.S. ferry services have been approved by the U.S.
government for the Cuba run, and officials from Port Manatee, just south
of Port Tampa Bay, have been vocal about their desire to get in on that
action. Jorge Fernandez, the operator for Havana Ferry Partners, which
is licensed for ferry service with Cuba, has said Port Manatee is his
top choice. But neither he nor Port Manatee director Carlos Buqueras
will say whether they are in discussions to establish such a service.
That service, when established, should be in Tampa, said Tampa
Councilwoman Yvonne Capin. She said she brought it up at a council
meeting when the ferries were first approved. She said she asked where
the port stood on the issue. “No one knew. But I think most agree they
belong here.” She said Tampa residents have been vocal about their
desire for such a service.
Tampa Port Authority Vice Chairman Carl Lindell Jr. said he was assured
by Anderson last week that space is available for a ferry.
“We have to play by the rules,” Lindell said. “We’d love to just ignore
all that. We are kind of stuck between what we’d like to do and what we
are allowed do.” He said port officials “are concerned about
appearances,” about overstepping the embargo that will remain in place
until Congress lifts it.
“When that happens, when the embargo is lifted, we will be so
competitive,” Lindell said.
After returning from a personal humanitarian trip to Cuba in 2009,
Lindell was very vocal about the need for the port to get to Cuba and
establish a relationship. He since has tweaked his message.
“The port is doing a lot of things behind the scenes,” he said. “We are
On his trips to Cuba, Lindell said, he had unofficial discussions about
future business there. “Cuba isn’t the problem,” he said. “Congress is
the problem. The embargo is out of step with the American public, 70
percent of which thinks it is way out of line.
“We want to do business with Cuba,” Lindell said. “And certainly, we
wouldn’t hire an administrator that didn’t want to do business with
Cuba.” For now, though, the trade door is only ajar, he said.
Anderson said Cuba is part of Port Tampa Bay’s “hemispheric strategy,”
which includes trade with Chile, Colombia, Brazil and the Dominican
Republic. “We are spending a lot of travel time, resources and strategic
planning on growing all of our Latin American business,” which includes
meeting with a lot of private companies already doing business with
Cuba, he said.
“We are fully prepared.”
This latest Cuba intoxication began Dec. 17 when Obama announced he
would normalize relations with Cuba by easing trade and travel
restrictions. Airline flights from Tampa International Airport picked
up, and so did the conversation in offices and on the streets in a city
with the third largest Cuban population in the country, after Miami and
New York City.
But much of it is just that, an intoxication, port officials say. There
is still an embargo in place that restricts U.S. businesses from trading
with Cuba except on a very limited basis. The United States first
implemented an embargo against Cuba in 1961. President Bill Clinton
codified that embargo in 1996 with the Helms-Burton Act, which means it
will take an act of Congress to lift it.
Obama’s restrictions didn’t loosen enough to allow a rash of new
business opportunities. There are 12 categories under which people can
travel to Cuba without a license from the federal Office of Foreign
But rules for granting travel to Cuba do allow for Port Tampa Bay or any
business to apply for a special license for travel to the island nation,
said Hagar Chemali, a spokeswoman for OFAC.
“For any travel that falls outside those 12 categories, the officials
can apply for a specific license, which would be reviewed on a
case-by-case basis,” Chemali said.
“If it were open right now, I’d jump on the next plane,” said Stephen
Swindal Jr., chairman of the Tampa Port Authority. But the port has to
operate within the confines of the law, he said. “Our infrastructure is
such that we are prepared.” Port Tampa Bay will be an ideal spot for a
ferry between Florida and Cuba and is prepared to make that happen, he said.
That being said, Swindal said he thinks a lot of people have become
preoccupied with Cuba since Obama made the announcement in December to
loosen restrictions on travel and trade with that country.
“At times, people have become obsessed with Cuba,” he said. “Obviously,
they need goods and services. Is it going to be our salvation? No. Will
it add business for the port? Absolutely.”
Source: Port of Tampa leaders unsure how strongly to pursue Cuba ties |
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