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Cuba’s Mariel port project, economic zone attracting 1st companies due to operate in 2016

Cuba’s Mariel port project, economic zone attracting 1st companies due
to operate in 2016
Associated Press July 14, 2015 | 4:30 p.m. EDT + More
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press

MARIEL, Cuba (AP) — At Cuba’s new mega-port project west of Havana,
shipping containers are stacked five-deep the length of its 2,300-foot
(700-meter) dock alongside four massive, Chinese-built offloading cranes.

Neon-vested workers are busy laying roads and building a convention
center, and trucks filled with dirt rumble over rutted roads and coat
the vegetation with dust.

Not far from the Mariel container terminal, workers have finished
grading a flat area the size of a football field for the first private
companies to establish operations in a special economic development zone
billed as a key part of the country’s effort to attract foreign
investment and jumpstart a sluggish economy.

A year and a half after the port’s launch, only seven companies — five
foreign and two domestic — have the green light to operate here. But
with six of those approvals coming since January, officials say things
are getting off the ground.

“We’re in July and we have approved almost one company per month,” Ana
Teresa Igarza, director of the Special Development Zone at Mariel, said
in an interview this week, when The Associated Press received access to
the site. “The pace is what we expected from the beginning.”

“The first ones are the trickiest,” she added. “After they begin to
invest, it’s simpler for others to do so. But there’s an exploratory phase.”

Igarza declined to say which companies are coming to Mariel, except that
the foreign firms include two from Mexico, two from Belgium and one from
Spain. They cover sectors including food, chemicals and logistics,
represent total investment of around $50 million and are expected to
launch operations in the first half of 2016.

With Mariel, Cuba is also looking ahead to when the U.S. embargo may be
lifted as part of a rapprochement begun by presidents Barack Obama and
Raul Castro in December. Washington and Havana plan to officially
restore diplomatic relations on Monday.

Igarza said visiting U.S. businesspeople also have expressed interest.

Tractor assembly company Cleber LLC of Alabama has already applied for a
U.S. Treasury license with an eye toward building a plant at Mariel.

“We see this as attractive and necessary for our economy, and we told
them to go ahead with preparing the documentation,” Igarza said.

Located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Havana, the first part of
the port and planned development zone are to occupy some 11,000 acres
(4,500 hectares) of bay shore and low hills.

Mariel bay is being dredged to a target depth of 59 feet (17.9 meters)
to accommodate deeper-draft ships than those that can use the port of
Havana, which cannot be expanded because of an automobile tunnel that
traverses its mouth.

Container shipping has already been transferred from Havana to Mariel,
though the capital still receives fuel tankers and grain shipments.

A new railroad line will transport cargo and workers from Havana. Not
counting the construction, there are currently just 328 people working
at Mariel, though officials project the development zone could
ultimately create some 70,000 jobs, including manufacturing, biotech and
other areas.

In selling Mariel to investors, Cuba touts its well-educated populace,
low labor costs and strategic location in the Caribbean. Officials also
talk of the port eventually becoming a center for transshipment activity.

“Without haste, but without pause,” said Igarza, echoing the
oft-repeated mantra of Castro and other officials about the pace with
which Cuba intends to implement broader economic reforms that in recent
years have allowed a smidgen of free-market activity in the
communist-run country.

Some observers say that speed is too slow to attract much foreign
investment to Mariel.

“The timetables from those who are promoting reform along the lines of
the slogan ‘without haste, but without pause,’ I think they’re
inadequate,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban economist who teaches at
New York University.

Source: Cuba: Mariel port, economic zone attract 1st foreign firms – US
News –
http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2015/07/14/cuba-mariel-port-economic-zone-attracts-1st-foreign-firms

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