By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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In his February 19 "state of the port" speech, Port of Miami director Chuck Towsley ignored the ravenous billion-ton Gorilla 100 miles away, namely the Cuban economy. A few years ago, that omission would have been unremarkable in a county where the craving to starve out Fidel Castro has been as Cuban-American as pumpkin pie. But under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, U.S. companies can now sell the socialist Godzilla hundreds of products, from basic grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats to pasta, chocolate, ice cream, beer, wine, and frog's legs. Best of all, the law requires the Cuban government to pay with cash. Over the past year the Gorilla consumed about $140 million in U.S. food and agricultural products. In coming years, Florida's share of such sales could reach $28 million per year, if the U.S. embargo on Cuba were fully lifted. Nationwide, the proceeds could exceed one billion dollars annually.
But in the town that the embargo built, so forbidden are thoughts of the Gorilla that key Miami-Dade trade officials, when contacted by New Times, said they weren't even aware that U.S. food and agricultural sales to Cuba are now legal. Others who are familiar with the law still cower at the mere mention of the Cuban Kong.
Meanwhile county and state officials from just about every major U.S. port within striking distance of Cuba, except Miami's, have traveled to Havana with members of the private sector seeking trade deals. For example, this past September nine ports that compete for business in the Caribbean Basin sent delegations to the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition, a trade show organized by Connecticut-based trade promoter Peter Nathan. Those ports included: Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida; Corpus Christi and Freeport, Texas; Lake Charles and New Orleans, Louisiana; and the Georgia Port Authority. While at the event dozens of U.S. companies (including nine from Florida) signed about $92 million in sales contracts with the Cuban government.
Miami-Dade also stayed away from a similar event at the U.S.-Cuba Business Conference in Cancun and Havana this past February 17-19. Officials from these ports did attend: Beaumont, Corpus Christi, Galveston, and Houston, Texas; Lake Charles, Louisiana; the Georgia Port Authority; and Tampa's Port Manatee.
By virtually all accounts Towsley has run the port like a tight ship during his five-year tenure. In 2002 cargo shipments in and out of the port rose 5.3 percent to 8.6 million tons, while Broward's Port Everglades suffered a 12 percent decline. Towsley is hoping to install six additional gantry cranes, used to lift cargo containers from truck to freighter, to accommodate increased business at the county's "second-most important economic generator," as he called the port in his address.
But the Gorilla still gives county officials the jitters. A port spokeswoman recently told a Reuters reporter that Towsley has no plans involving trade with Cuba and declined further comment. The February 3 story quoted an anonymous businessman as saying: "If the port director of Miami ever suggested that he was going to do business with Cuba he wouldn't be able to put the ... phone down before being fired." But in an interview with New Timesthe day before his speech, Towsley dispelled such paranoia. He suggested the Port of Miami is ready for commerce with the socialist island. "We're well positioned because of our location and facilities to go after a good fair share of that business.... We're doing what we need to do should our customers want to go after that business. They have the facilities and the opportunity to do that here in Miami."
Towsley and his boss, County Manager Steve Shiver, aren't about to stick their necks out, though, like their counterparts from Galveston to Jacksonville. He confirmed that they have zero plans to capture the new Cuban market. Towsley maintains he hasn't even discussed the topic with anyone in Miami-Dade government. He denied his passive approach was the result of any anti-Castro mandates emanating from Mayor Penelas or county commissioners. "I view a free market with Cuba the same as I would view the opening of any other market," Towsley declared. "We don't necessarily make improvements to increase our capacity or efficiencies based upon any one particular country or market." None of the $140 million in commercial cargo destined for Cuba went through the Port of Miami, he added. (However, two cows, two steers, two buffalo, two sheep, and two pigs traveled by DHL plane from Miami International Airport for the Food and Agribusiness Exhibition last September, and the Cuban government bought them.)
Miami-Dade is poised to miss future opportunities to exploit the Gorilla's appetite, which can only grow. In a new study based on U.S. Agriculture Department data, Texas A&M economists Parr Rosson and Flynn Adcock estimate that with no further loosening of the embargo U.S. food and agricultural exports to Cuba are likely to be at least $37 million per year. Based on current practices Florida's share of that would be only $272,000. But if sanctions were lifted, Rosson and Adcock project, that figure could climb to $28 million, depending on how fast Cuba's centrally planned economy expands. Those exports would stimulate another $15 million to $61 million for related businesses (such as export packers, warehouse operators, customs brokers, port operators, and shippers) and create 150 to 500 new jobs. "What somebody ought to do is get licensed [by the U.S. Treasury Department] to go," Rosson drawled, "and then just hop on one of those charters and visit with Alimport, which is [Cuba's] food import agency, start the wheels to turn, and do some business." The Port of Miami is especially well-positioned to capitalize on Florida's processed grocery goods and fertilizer trades, as well as ferryboat traffic, he noted.