By Paul Quinlan
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 9:26 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27, 2009
RIVIERA BEACH — In the 1950s, before Fidel Castro came to power, goods
bound to and from Cuba poured through the Port of Palm Beach, where the
West India Fruit and Steamship Co. carried as many as 10,000 loaded
railcars to the small Caribbean nation every year.
But that business soon vanished when the U.S. sought to banish trade
with Cuba in 1960 after Fidel Castro's revolution. By June the following
year, the West Indian Fruit and Steamship Co. had put its six freighters
and automobile ferries up for sale after 40 years in business.
Today, nearly half a century later, the Port of Palm Beach has struggled
trying to reestablish its long-lost dominance over the U.S.-Cuba trade
route, despite hopes that the Obama administration could further loosen
or end the embargo.
"We were once the largest trading partner," said Executive Director
Manny Almira, whose family fled the island when he was 10 years old.
"Why can't we be that again?"
Hamstrung in efforts to obtain U.S. and Cuban permission to travel to
the island and meet with trade officials, port leaders find themselves
waiting in a long, growing, unmoving line of companies trying to do
business with Cuba.
Almira landed a three-month license to travel from the U.S. but could
not obtain the more elusive Cuban visa in time to attend a trade show in
Havana this month. Both governments are said to be swamped with
applications from those interested in traveling there.
Sixty-eight U.S. companies did attend the Havana International Fair
2009, although many more — like Port of Palm Beach officials — tried and
failed to obtain travel permits, said Jay Brickman, a vice president at
Crowley Maritime Corp.
Last year, American companies sold $700 million worth of food to Cuba
under embargo exemptions that apply to humanitarian and agricultural
goods, making the U.S. the island's top food supplier and fifth-largest
trading partner in 2008.
Crowley Maritime does a regular freight business with the island,
exporting mostly bulk shipments of grains and beans to Cuba through Port
Everglades. The company's relationship took more than 20 years to
establish, said Brickman, who began traveling to the island on behalf of
Crowley in 1978 before they finally began trading in 2001.
Brickman, who now goes back and forth regularly, said Cubans officials
are inundated with applications and have adopted the sort of standoffish
attitude that one might expect of a girl who has come to realize she's
the prettiest one at the dance.
"It was a question of, 'who are all these people, and where have they
been all my life,'" Brickman said.
Cuba is in no hurry to expand its imports, as the global economic
slowdown has caused the nation's biggest economic drivers — nickel
exports, foreign remittances and tourism — to fall.
What's more, expanding trade with the U.S. has taken a back seat to
doing more business with such countries as Venezuela, Iran, China,
Brazil and Canada, Brickman said.
"Five or six years ago, it used to be the top of their priority list,"
Brickman said. "I don't think that's the case anymore."
The U.S. posture toward Cuba has changed dramatically as support of the
embargo has wavered among younger generations of Cubans. Dissident Cuban
blogger Yoani Sánchez, of Havana, called the trade restrictions "clumsy
and anachronistic" in a recent post that also said: "I am struck,
however, that on market shelves the labels and the four packs reveal
what the anti-imperialist rhetoric hides: much of what we eat says,
'Made in USA.' "
The Obama administration this year rolled back restrictions and opened
lines of communication previously closed.
But bullish capitalists who once expected the eventual end of the
embargo would suddenly lead McDonald's restaurants and Home Depots to
pop up on Cuban street corners say another alternative is more likely:
The embargo falls without any significant political changes in Cuba.
"It's something we never focused on in the past, but frankly, it's a
much more realistic analysis," said Bruce Jay Colan, chairman of the
Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
If that happened, uncertainty over the stability and predictability of
Cuban law and government would temper investment, Colan said.
Miami's airport would likely remain the primary U.S. gateway for
passengers bound for Cuba, Colan said. A chamber report notes that in
May 1959, there were 102 scheduled weekly flights between Miami and
Havana — almost double the number that came and went from all other U.S.
Almira hopes that same precedent applies to shipping from the Port of
He is reapplying for a U.S. license to travel to Cuba, with the hope of
securing a visa from Cuban officials soon afterward. When the door
opens, he said he wants the port to be ready.
"It's sooner than ever before, in my opinion."
Port of Palm Beach hopes to revive trade with Cuba (27 November 2009)