Tampa Bay Times
By: Paul Guzzo
A delegation of government officials and port leaders from Cuba will soon begin a tour of maritime centers along the U.S. Gulf Coast that includes a visit to Tampa on Feb. 1 and 2.
The delegation hopes to establish and strengthen relationships and discuss business opportunities, said Pat Younger, executive director of the Texas-based Gulf Ports Association of the Americas, said.
"The Cubans have wanted to come to the U.S. to talk with the ports for quite a while," said Younger, who will meet with the delegation in Tampa.
Port Tampa Bay governing board member Pat Allman said the port's schedule of events and meetings with the Cubans is still being planned.
The delegation will visit Port Houston on Jan. 22, Port of New Orleans Jan. 24 and 25, Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 26, Port of Palm Beach Jan. 28 and Port of Virginia in Norfolk on Jan. 29 and 30.
Engage Cuba, a Washington, D.C., coalition of private businesses working to lift the embargo on Cuba, said the delegation will visit the nation's capital on Jan. 31.
While here, the Cubans will participate in the American Association of Port Authorities' "Planning for Shifting Trade" conference at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel.
The event's website lists a panel discussion on infrastructure investment that will include Ana Teresa Igarza, the general director of Cuba's Mariel Economic Special Development Zone.
The zone covers 180 square miles west of Havana and features factories, storage for trade and a maritime cargo terminal with a current annual capacity of around 800,000 containers that can be expanded to handle 3 million.
Port Tampa Bay is a preferred partner for Cuba's Port of Mariel, according to a statement to the Tampa Bay Times in September by TC Mariel, the company that runs the container shipment operation there.
Access to Orlando is the reason: The central Florida city is a destination for tourists and home to many regional distribution hubs for inbound cargo that would prefer their containers land in nearby Tampa rather than Miami.
Mariel leaders want to position their facility as a transshipment hub connecting the world to the Caribbean region. China, for instance, could send goods to Tampa through the Cuban port.
But there are still restrictions preventing this from happening.
Under American law, all but a select few goods are prohibited from being loaded onto a ship in Cuba and sent to the United States. That restriction includes items created in and coming from a third nation.
President-elect Donald Trump has said that unless he gets a "better deal" from Cuba, he will reverse policies of the Obama administraion that have allowed for engagement with the island nation.
Still, Engage Cuba's James Williams said he hopes Trump's business background will sway him to expand economic opportunities in Cuba.
"He wants to come in with a mandate to increase jobs and exports," Williams said.
Agreements can be signed between the Cuban delegation and ports on this tour that "lead to direct economic improvements for the American people in these communities," Williams said. But these deals will likely depend on loosening the trade restrictions with Cuba.