Confusion mounts over Port Tampa Bay’s Cuba intentions
Paul Guzzo, Times Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2017 5:30am
TAMPA — The official word from Port Tampa Bay last week was that the
port had no intention of entering into an agreement that would open the
door to possible future business dealings with Cuba.
Other ports in Florida, meanwhile, acknowledged that they were — in the
form of a so-called memorandum of understanding.
“We are taking a very conservative approach,” the port’s communications
vice president, Edward Miyagishima, told the Tampa Bay Times on Jan. 25,
adding, “we are not going to look at” an agreement without an okay from
a federal agency that enforces the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
The truth is, according to an internal document obtained by the Tampa
Bay Times, Port Tampa Bay had already drawn up a memorandum, gotten
approval from the federal office, circulated the word in maritime
circles and garnered congratulations for its efforts.
So why the denials?
Timing may be one reason. The port’s public statement came as Gov. Rick
Scott, a critic of efforts to normalize relations with the communist
nation, was threatening via Twitter to cut funding for Cuba-friendly
ports. Scott followed through on the threat in the 2017 budget he
submitted this week.
The flip-flop comes as Port Tampa Bay is hosting an international
maritime trade conference today featuring a panel discussion that
includes port representatives from Cuba.
Word that Port Tampa Bay had indeed pursued its own Cuba deal came in an
email leaked to Tampa public relations executive Bill Carlson, an
advocate of improved relations between the United States and Cuba.
Carlson forwarded the email and the attached memorandum to the Times,
saying only that it came from an “insider” concerned that port
executives “were not telling the truth.”
The email was sent Jan. 13 from Port Tampa Bay’s chief commercial
officer, Raul Alfonso, to Steve Cernak, director of Port Everglades in
“Paul asked me to send you a copy of the draft MOU our Legal Dept.
prepared and reviewed with the US State Dept. of Commerce, and OFAC,” it
says. “Paul” is Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson and OFAC is the Office
of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
The agencies “found it was acceptable for us to execute,” Alfonso wrote.
The memorandum says Port Tampa Bay and Cuba’s National Port Authority
would explore building a relationship through data and technological
interchange, market studies and training.
Miyagishima, the port vice president, acknowledged Wednesday there was a
memorandum but said no federal agency had approved it — contradicting
the email from port commercial officer Alfonso.
Miyagishima also said Port Tampa Bay had informed Port Everglades of the
decision not to sign.
That was news to Port Everglades spokeswoman Ellen Kennedy, who told the
Times on Wednesday that her port’s staff was under the impression Port
Tampa Bay would sign. The first indication they received otherwise,
Kennedy said, was in a Times story last week.
What’s more, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, said the Cuban
Embassy thought the agreement with Port Tampa Bay was a go based on
contacts she had Dec. 11. Castor said she emailed congratulations to
port CEO Anderson.
The ports in Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale intended to sign memorandums
during visits last week by the Cuba port representatives. The two ports
and Port Tampa Bay were comparing notes, Kennedy said.
Gov. Scott scuttled those plans with his Jan. 25 tweets, one of which
said, “I don’t believe any port in our state, none of them, should be
doing business with a brutal dictator.”
Contact Paul Guzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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