Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tampa businessmen plan increased trade with Cuba

Tampa businessmen plan increased trade with Cuba

TAMPA -- Two businessmen -- descendants of well known local families --
are increasing bay-area trade with Cuba, continuing a historic
relationship dating back to the days of Hernando de Soto.

Monthly shipments of cattle feed and supplements from the Port of Tampa
and Port Manatee to Cuba start in mid-March, pending negotiations and
approval from both governments, said Arthur Savage, owner of Tampa
shipping company A.R. Savage & Son Inc.

Five ships went to the island delivering pinto beans and phosphates last

Each shipment this year will deliver an estimated 3,000 tons of animal
feed supplement and grain, according to John Parke Wright IV, director
of J.P. Wright and Co., a cattle, feed and equipment exporter.

Wright and Savage, distant relatives by marriage, shipped cattle to Cuba
in past years and could send more this year or next pending an agreement.

In the meantime, the cattle graze at Strickland Farm in Manatee County,
where Wright raises crossbred Brahman and Black Angus cattle called Brangus.

On Friday, a cowboy hat-wearing Wright visited the herd -- dodging the
attention of an ornery bull and discussing his visit for better
relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

He's the great-great grandson of H.T. Lykes, who married Capt. James
McKay's daughter. McKay, Savage's great-great-grandfather, started
shipping cattle to Havana in 1858, establishing trade with Cuba. McKay
and his family continued building a shipping empire, and the Lykes
family's shipping, cattle and financial interests grew.

Because of a 45-year trade embargo, many Americans believe there's no
trade with Cuba. But U.S. exports to Cuba have grown since 2001, after
Congress allowed sales of agricultural products and medical supplies on
a cash-only basis. No Cuban imports are sold here other than literature.

Over $3 million in fertilizer, animal feed and phosphates departed from
the Port of Tampa to the island last year, according to Census figures.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, Democratic chairman of the House Ways and
Means Committee, and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, introduced legislation
that would allow free travel by Americans to Cuba, and other lawmakers
have touted the idea of more open trade with the island nation.

Since 2000, the U.S. has made $1.4 billion in agricultural sales,
according to the Farm Bureau Federation. In 2006, sales to Cuba totaled
$350 million.

The U.S. Department of Commerce regulates and authorizes trade to the
island by issuing special licenses.

A majority of the food purchased in the U.S. goes to the ration program
used to feed the 11.2 million people in Cuba, according to John
Kavulich, senior policy analyst with the U.S.-Cuba Trade Economic
Council Inc. in New York.

Attempts to open trade between the two countries -- what businessmen
such as Savage and Parke Wright are calling for -- may not work in the
long run, Kavulich said.

Cuba also purchases goods and receives financial support from Venezuela,
China and other countries, Kavulich said. These countries are allies and
share similar ideologies with the communist island nation.

"What that means is they provide long-term financing that Cuba may or
may not repay," he said. "If the U.S. has a change from cash only, you
are exposing businesses to almost certain default from Cuba."

Efforts to reach officials in the Cuban Interests Section in Washington
and U.S.-based Cuban import agency officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Trade with Cuba stopped with a U.S. embargo in 1962, a couple of years
after dictator Fidel Castro took power. But as soon as the restrictions
loosened, Savage and Wright re-established their families' business
relationship with Cuba.

Savage said he wanted to preserve his family's legacy. His mother had
vivid memories of Cuba.

"She told me it was the prettiest island she had ever seen and the
nicest people," Savage said, sitting in an office adorned with
black-and-white photographs of ships launched from Tampa in the Havana

Savage was selected by Alimport, Cuba's import agency, to be its
shipping agent from the Port of Tampa and Port Manatee.

Savage envisions a day when ferry boats are going back and forth, where
people can get in their cars and have the ferry shuttle them over to
Cuba for a day and Cubans can come to Tampa Bay as well.

Wright, of Naples, also said he wants to keep the family tradition alive.

The Lykes and McKays were exporting 100,000 head of cattle to Cuba in
1879, he said. He sold 250 head to Cuba in 2004 -- soon after embargo
restrictions began loosening -- the first sale of Florida cattle to Cuba
in more than 40 years.

Wright said he plans to attend a cattlemen's fair in Cuba at the end of
March to talk about possible future shipments to the island.

Last modified: February 28. 2007 12:00AM

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