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Cuban delegation arrives amid threats by Gov. Scott to cut funding to ports that sign pacts

Cuban delegation arrives amid threats by Gov. Scott to cut funding to
ports that sign pacts
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD, AMY SHERMAN AND PATRICIA MAZZEI
mwhitefield@miamiherald.com

A high-level Cuban business delegation toured Port Everglades and met
with port officials Thursday, although the planned highlight — the
signing of a cooperation pact — was canceled after Gov. Rick Scott
threatened to cut off state funding to any port that entered into an
agreement with the communist-ruled island nation.

The Port of Palm Beach also called off its plans to ink a Cuba deal
Friday, citing the governor’s stance.

Scott said Wednesday that he would ask Florida legislators to restrict
funds for ports that “enter into any agreement with [the] Cuban
dictatorship.” That risked $37 million over the next five years for Port
Everglades, which is in Fort Lauderdale, and $920,000 over the same
period for the Port of Palm Beach.

Although the Legislature, which sets the state budget, could ignore the
governor’s request, the possibility was worrisome enough that Port
Everglades leaders huddled for most of the day Wednesday considering
their options.

At issue was a non-binding memorandum of understanding that was to be
signed with the National Port Administration of Cuba. It was to cover
future cooperation and could have led to joint marketing studies and
training, sharing of data helpful in forecasting future trade flows, and
perhaps even joint marketing of Cuban ports and Port Everglades,
according to Jim Pyburn, the port’s director of business development.

Port Everglades issued a statement Thursday morning bowing out of the deal.

“The National Port Administration of Cuba has indicated to Port
Everglades administration that there is no need for a memorandum of
understanding at this time,” the port said. “However, today’s business
meeting and related activities will continue as planned.”

The Port of Palm Beach quickly canceled its signing too, citing “a
recent request from Governor Rick Scott.”

“The Port of Palm Beach plans to welcome the Cuban Delegation and looks
forward to having our tenants learn more about opportunities to expand
their businesses,” the port said in a statement. “The Port’s intent and
purpose behind receiving the delegation has always been to explore
possibilities to expand commerce and trade for our tenants.”

Cuban Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas tweeted a photo Thursday of the
Cuban delegation’s Port Everglades visit.

“The Governor appreciates the port choosing not to do business with the
Castro dictatorship,” Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an email
to the Miami Herald.

After a meeting with Port Everglades Director Steve Cernak, the
seven-member Cuban delegation toured the facilities, viewing the site
where the port hopes to dredge so it can handle the big ships that now
traverse the expanded Panama Canal, and its cruise facilities.

“I think the event went well ultimately. It was really about putting the
business community together for a discussion,” said Cernak.

After discussing the MOU with the Cuban delegation, he said, “We agreed
to put off the signing.” But he said the flap over the MOU pointed up
the need for more dialogue.

Members of the Cuban delegation said they would still like to see the
MOU signed when it’s possible.

“The United States is our natural market and very close to us,” said
Eradis González de la Peña, president of Almacenes Universales, a Cuban
logistics company that oversees the Mariel Container Terminal and the port.

“Our interest is to insert the port of Mariel and the Mariel Economic
Development Zone into the logistical corridors of the ports of the
United States and become part of their supply chains,” she said.

“We thought signing the MOU would be a first step in realizing this
goal. We’ll keep on working on it,” said González.

As for Scott’s comments, she said: “As a governor, he has the right –
and what’s more we respect that.”

The Cubans lunched with executives from the cruise lines and Crowley
Maritime, which has been offering shipping service to Cuba for the past
15 years, and planned to cap the day with a “Doing Business with Cuba”
seminar for about 150 members of the local business community.

“The port director was a little upset the way things transpired.
Nevertheless he understood the governor’s position,” Broward County
Commissioner Chip LaMarca said Thursday morning, minutes after speaking
with Cernak. “With respect to the MOU, it was canceled yesterday
afternoon once the governor’s position was made.”

The draft of the two-page memo of understanding, obtained by the Herald
under Florida’s public records law, says “the parties believe it is in
their mutual interest to establish an alliance of cooperation aimed at
generating new business by promoting the all water route between Port
Everglades” and the ports of Cuba.

“Such new business would help to increase the present level of economic
growth by increasing job opportunities and revenues at Port Everglades
and increasing revenues at the Ports in Cuba.”

Ellen Kennedy, a Port Everglades spokeswoman, called it a “goodwill
gesture” similar to sister seaport agreements that the port has in place
with five other ports around the world. “It’s something we were hoping
to have,” she said.

When port officials picked the Cuban delegation up at the airport
Thursday morning, “they said the MOU wasn’t a big deal,” Kennedy said.
“It seemed like they were more interested in the business meeting and
forming business alliances and promoting the port of Mariel.”

All container traffic that previously went to Havana has been shifted to
the deep-water Port of Mariel. Adjacent to that port, the Cuban
government also is developing the Mariel Special Economic Development
Zone, where it hopes to attract foreign investment and companies with
cutting-edge production capabilities.

Crowley Maritime, Port Everglades’ largest customer, offers a Port
Everglades-to-Mariel route three times a month with continuing service
to Honduras and Guatemala. It has been offering service from the Fort
Lauderdale port to Cuba for the past 15 years, mainly transporting
frozen chicken parts.

Cuba trade is hardly new for Florida.

Under exceptions to the embargo that allow food and other humanitarian
exports to Cuba, the United States has exported more than 4,806,368
metric tons of products to the island since 2010.

Of that amount, more than 737,155 metric tons have been transported from
ports located in Florida, according to John Kavulich, president of the
U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. This represents more than 15
percent of the total transported since 2010.

“Gov. Scott’s comments focus upon the ethics of exporting to countries
where the United States has diplomatic and commercial relations but does
not share the same political system,” Kavulich said. “For consistency,
would the governor oppose port funding for those that assist with
exports to China, Vietnam, Turkey and countries throughout the Middle East?”

But over three posts on Twitter Wednesday, Scott said he would ask state
lawmakers to restrict dollars for ports that “enter into any agreement
with [the] Cuban dictatorship.”

Scott’s tweets came a day after the first legal cargo from Cuba in more
than half a century — artisanal charcoal — arrived Tuesday in Port
Everglades aboard a Crowley ship. The two containers of hardwood
charcoal were produced by private Cuban worker cooperatives, making the
Cuban exports legal under rules issued by former President Barack Obama
in his quest to normalize relations with Cuba.

The Cuban delegation has already paid visits to ports in Houston and New
Orleans, and plans on calling on the Port of Palm Beach, Port Tampa Bay
and the Port of Virginia in Norfolk before returning to Cuba in early
February.

Source: Two Florida ports cancel plans to sign deals with Cuba | Miami
Herald –
www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article128866679.html

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