Florida ports send $65 million in goods to Cuba even as governor tries
to limit trade expansion
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
Humanitarian shipments, frozen chicken parts, chocolate bars, empty beer
kegs from the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, medicine, even a
traveling Bible exhibit.
These items and more have flowed through the state’s ports and airports
headed to or returning from Cuba even though Gov. Rick Scott doesn’t
think any Florida port should be doing business with the “Cuban
The governor’s statements recently scuttled plans by two Florida ports
to sign a cooperation agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding,
with the Cuban port administration, and Scott also put wording in his
2017 budget recommendation that would withhold funding for port
improvements from ports that expand trade with Cuba.
In a note to a $176.6 million recommendation for improvements at
Florida’s seaports, the governor said no state funds can be “allocated
to infrastructure projects that result in the expansion of trade with
the Cuban dictatorship because of their continued human rights abuses.”
Now it’s up to Florida legislators to decide whether to leave that
wording in the budget when the session convenes March 7.
McKinley Lewis, the governor’s deputy communications director, later
clarified that the governor’s proviso language would only apply to the
business a port itself might carry out with Cuba — not to port users. It
was “directed at the ports, not private companies,” he said. “Any
private company will have to make their own decisions regarding their
partnership or involvement with the Castro dictatorship.”
That means a cruise line that leaves from Port Tampa Bay or PortMiami
with ports of call in Cuba wouldn’t jeopardize state funding for those
ports. Neither would a shipment of frozen chickens carried by a Crowley
ship from Port Everglades to Mariel, Cuba. But a port signing an MOU
with Cuba or agreeing to joint marketing studies would be verboten if
Scott’s proviso language stays in the budget.
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, said the
budget wording is confusing:“The vagueness of the wording was precisely
what Gov. Scott and his staff sought — to create uncertainty and, as a
result, negatively impact the desire of exporters in the United States
to engage in commerce with Cuba.”
It’s important to note that Florida ports don’t actually trade with
Cuba. Their private customers do.
“We don’t have any authority to tell port users who they can do business
with,” said Ellen Kennedy, a Port Everglades spokeswoman. “We just have
land leases with them. The port is like a shopping mall. We lease the
space to tenants but we don’t sell the T-shirts.”
The U.S. embargo against Cuba limits trade between the United States and
the island, but an analysis for the Miami Herald by Datamyne, a trade
data company, shows steady traffic between several Florida airports and
seaports and Cuba. It totaled almost $65 million last year.
Humanitarian donations, as well as food and agricultural products and
pharmaceuticals and medical supplies can be legally exported to Cuba. So
can products exported to support the services of regularly scheduled
airlines flying to the island. Also included in the totals are products
shipped to and from the Guantánamo Naval base.
For the entire year of 2015, the Datamyne analysis showed that Port
Everglades, PortMiami, Miami International Airport, Jacksonville, Port
Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport — tallied
$57.2 million worth of exports to Cuba.
But last year, Datamyne found only three Florida seaports — Port
Everglades, Miami and Jacksonville — and MIA sent exports to Cuba, and
the total fell to $46.4 million because frozen chicken shipped from
Jacksonville plummeted from $27.2 million to just $765,606 in 2016.
What did Florida ports send to Cuba in 2016? The biggest category:
frozen chickens and chicken parts. Nearly $28 million worth headed to Cuba.
Among the U.S. companies that exported to Cuba were AJC International,
one of the world’s leading poultry marketers; Koch Foods, Intervision
Foods, an Atlanta-based company that ships meat and poultry all over the
world, and Globex International, a New York supplier of poultry and meat
Other products exported to Cuba included $2.2 million worth of charity
and relief donations [although the numbers don’t capture products that
Cuban Americans personally transport to friends and family in Cuba],
more than $3 million worth of chocolate bars and cocoa preparations,
$4.1 million worth of cookies, and $1.3 million in medicine in measured
Florida ports sent more than $1million worth of clothing donations, more
than $730,000 worth of catheters and medical needles, $402,000 in
pharmaceutical donations, and a smattering of other products ranging
from bicycle lights, beer, broths/soups and bread to carpets, hand
tools, blankets, artists’ paints, whiskey and books.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba precludes most true imports from the
island. In 2015, those exceptions added up to $61.95 million worth of
goods from Cuba shipped to five Florida ports — Jacksonville, Miami,
Port Everglades, Tampa Bay and Fort Pierce, according to a Datamyne
analysis of bills of lading.
In 2016, imports from Cuba handled by Florida ports fell to $18.5 million.
A rule change last year that allows the import of some products and
agricultural goods produced by Cuba’s self-employed sector could boost
imports from Cuba. Last month, two containers of artisan charcoal
produced by a private workers cooperative in Cuba arrived at Port
Everglades. It was the first true import shipment from Cuba in more than
What has been counted as imports from Cuba over the past two years are
mostly returned empty containers, furniture and personal belonging being
shipped back from the U.S. Embassy in Havana and from Guantánamo and
personal cars — 2005 Chevy Tahoe, 2012 Toyota Prius, 2007 Ford Mustang —
used to tool around the base that are coming back home with their owners.
But there are more intriguing entries among the imports from Cuba last
year: 13 self-inflating life rafts from Guantánamo, troop gear, stage
equipment used in the Rolling Stones’ Havana concert in March, and the
return of a traveling Bible exhibit.
The exhibit from the Museum of the Bible in Oklahoma City went on
display from Feb. 6 to March 13 last year at the Catedral de Nuestra
Señora de la Asunción in Santiago de Cuba. It focused on the Bible’s
impact on Cuba’s history and featured rare texts and manuscripts,
including the first complete Bible in Spanish.
The museum is chaired by Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, subject
of a landmark Supreme Court case that found corporations controlled by
religious families can’t be required to cover contraceptives for female
workers under the Affordable Care Act.
In partnership with the American Bible Society and the Archbishop of
Cuba, the museum also sent 75 artifacts and pieces of art from its
collection to Cuba in 2014 for display at the Havana Cathedral.
Some analysts question why the governor’s stance on port business
applies only to Cuba and not to other Florida trading partners such as
China and Venezuela that also have troubling human rights records.
S. Fla airports and seaports
South Florida airports and seaports recorded $6.7 billion in trade with
China last year and it was the region’s third most important trading
partner. PortMiami also has sister seaport agreements, which are similar
to MOUs, with the Port of Xiamen and Shanghai International Port.
Some say Scott is being short-sighted in trying to discourage legal
trade with Cuba.
“I don’t like to see a state do what’s out of step with the federal
government. Whatever federal law says on trade, a port should be able to
do,” said Lee Sandler, who specializes in Customs and international
trade law. “I don’t think a state should try to limit opportunities.”
Sandler said there are “bona fide sensitivities” in the local community
about Cuba, but the bottom line is: “Our ports need to be able to compete.”
Scott said he is all for trade — just not with Cuba. “Trade is a
significant opportunity for us,” Scott said during a recent speech at a
Coral Gables meeting of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce
in Latin America and the Caribbean. “My job is to figure out how we get
Other states that are in the thick of competition for cargo don’t seem
to have a problem exploring business opportunities with Cuba. Since the
U.S. rapprochement with Cuba began on Dec. 17, 2014, governors from
eight states — Colorado, New York, Arkansas, Texas, Virginia, Missouri,
Louisiana and West Virginia — have visited the island.
Cuba already has signed MOUs with the Port of Virginia, the Alabama
State Port Authority and the ports of New Orleans and Lake Charles.
“Ports are a highly competitive business,” said Kavulich, “and if a
state creates impediments, there are state capitols awaiting
opportunities to audition for additional revenue — and the economic
impact that a thriving port or ports provide to a state, county, city,
As Cuba expands its new container port at Mariel and dredges it so it
can handle NeoPanamax vessels, the big ships that now transit the
expanded Panama Canal, it is trying to set itself up for a future as a
As part of that effort, a Cuban business and port delegation recently
concluded a 12-day visit to the United States that took it from Port
Houston to the Port of Virginia in Norfolk with stops at New Orleans,
Port Everglades, the Port of Palm Beach, Washington D.C. and the Port of
The Cuban port delegation’s recent visit to New Orleans concluded with a
dinner with Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson and
officials from the five deep-water ports on the Lower Mississippi River.
“We have an unmatched port system here in Louisiana, and the leaders of
those ports continue to prioritize trade with Cuba on many fronts,” said
Louisiana is the top U.S. exporting state to Cuba and has cumulatively
sent more than $1.4 billion in legal exports to the island. Like
Florida, it is a big exporter of frozen poultry.
“We want Louisiana to be first in line to any new opportunities with
Cuba, particularly the import, export and foreign direct investment
possibilities that could range into the billions of dollars in the
coming years,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said when a business delegation
from his state visited Havana last October.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi
Source: Florida’s trade with Cuba adds up to millions of dollars | Miami