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Tampa facing competition as Florida cities chase Cuba

TAMPA — Leaders in business and government across the Tampa Bay area are scrambling to cash in the coming normalization of relations with once-taboo Cuba.

On Tuesday, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce sends a 38-member delegation to the island nation for its third meeting there with government officials. In January, a delegation of leaders from Pinellas County’s private sector travelled to Cuba to meet with officials, as well.

The trip comes on the heels of resolutions adopted by the Tampa City Council — one offering the city as the site for a Cuban consulate and the other offering to host the signing of an accord restoring diplomatic relations.

What’s more, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, has emerged as a leading voice in Washington and adviser to President Barack Obama on normalizing relations with Cuba.

Tampa stands in contrast with Miami-Dade County, where resentment against the Castro regime is stoked by personal loss, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, whose focus remains regime change.

Still, Tampa by no means stands alone. Other Florida cities are working quietly to improve their own relations with Cuba.

As the Tampa delegation heads to Cuba today, the island nation’s top diplomat in the U.S. — Jose Ramon Cabanas Rodriguez, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. — will be in Florida to meet with leaders from neighboring Manatee and Sarasota counties.

In March, Port Manatee’s executive director Carlos Buqueras had lunch with Rodriguez at the Cuban diplomat’s home in Washington, D.C. And in mid-April, a Pensacola delegation that included its port director Amy Miller made its own trip to meet with officials in Cuba.

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“Cuba-Mania,” observes Johannes Werner, editor of “Cuba Standard,” an online publication following Cuban business news.

After five decades of travel and trade embargo brought on the dawn of Communism in Cuba, suddenly “everyone wants to get into the business of doing business with Cuba,” said Werner, who lives in Sarasota.

With its cigar manufacturing roots and its funding of the uprising against Spain, Tampa and Ybor City have deep historic ties to Cuba and a sizeable Cuban-American population.

But much smaller Manatee County already seems to have an edge in one area of trade.

A ferry operator now licensed by the U.S. to operate between here and Cuba says he’d prefer Port Manatee yo Port Tampa Bay

“Manatee’s port is a gem,” said the operator, Jorge Fernandez, CEO of Havana Ferry Partners. “And it is three hours closer to Cuba than Tampa’s.”

Pensacola is another city Tampa may want to keep an eye on.

The group from the Panhandle city that visited Cuba this spring “was the best delegation I have been part of and I have been on over 100 in 17 years of working to normalize relations,” said Albert Fox, president of the Tampa-based Alliance For Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. “Cuba was very impressed with Pensacola.”

One reason, Fox said: “the delegation’s willingness to negotiate with the Cuban government as it is, not how we want it to be. A lot of delegations fall short on that.”

Trips Fox has helped arrange to Cuba include a delegation led by then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who met with Fidel Castro in 2002, and another that included U.S. oil experts whose talks with Cuban counterparts in 2010 helped lead to an oil spill cleanup protocol between the two nations.

Fox also brokered the lunch between the Manatee port director and Cuban diplomat Rodriguez.

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These other cities do indeed provide potential competition, said local chamber President Bob Rohrlack, but he said he feels his organization is keeping Tampa out front with Cuba.

Besides three trips to Cuba, the Tampa chamber has met twice with diplomat Rodriguez and once with a predecessor.

“And we still have this deep history with Cuba,” Rohrlack said. “We always remind them of that.”

Still, one questions for all Florida delegations trying to woo Cuba is whether it’s worth it — whether a socialist nation with a struggling economy and a population of 11.5 million — the same as Ohio, the seventh most populous U.S. state — presents enough opportunities to do business.

Most Cubans depend upon the government for jobs that pay on average just $20 a month.

“Cuba is a country that needs everything – or at least a lot – as it moves forward,” said Stephen Reyes, a shareholder with the accounting and financial advising firm of Saltmarsh Cleaveland & Gund, which has an office in Tampa.

Reyes was part of both the recent Pinellas and Pensacola delegations.

“The need doesn’t line up with their buying power enough to impact the U.S. in a big way,” Reyes said, “But I see enough for a huge economic impact on the state, wherever that lands.”

The greatest opportunity, Reyes said, may lie in the Mariel special economic development zone, an area covering 180 square miles west of Havana that includes a port terminal with an initial annual capacity of up to 1 million containers as well as manufacturing and storage for trade.

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The Cuban government had received 35 Mariel-related international investment proposals for evaluation before President Obama announced Dec. 17 he would move to normalize relations, said the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group, which follows business trends in Cuba.

Because the travel and trade embargo, dating back to the early 1960s, none of those proposals came from the U.S.

Since Obama’s announcement, and perhaps in anticipation of more U.S. trade with Cuba, there have been reports of more than 300 international proposals — a 757 percent increase.

“Cuba Standard” lists some of these investment proposals as automotive assembly plants, soy oil factories and antibiotic plants.

The belief among analysts is that Mariel could become the largest industrial port in the Caribbean in size and volume and a trade gateway to the world as a trans-shipment site.

Argentina, for example, sends frozen meat to Mariel for shipment to Europe, quicker than sending it directly.

Already, ports in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale have regular cargo lines that travel to Cuba. Tampa does not.

The Tampa chamber delegation heading out today will tour Mariel but doesn’t include a representative from Port Tampa Bay.

No one at the port could be reached from comment Monday about why.

Pensacola’s port director, on the other hand, told her Cuban counterparts of her interest in using Mariel for trans-shipment, said Reyes, with advisers Saltmarsh. They were excited about the prospect, Reyes said.

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Werner of “Cuba Standard” said some Manatee County entrepreneurs attending the Cuban ambassador’s forums today own warehouse space near the county’s port. Werner, while not speaking for anyone but himself, said he could see the warehouse space as an advantage in discussions about regular cargo traffic to and from Cuba.

“There is no telling with the embargo in place how we can take advantage of Mariel but that was part of the trip,” Reyes said. “We listened, learned and then come home and learn more.”

Rohrlack of the Tampa chamber is interested in learning more about what Cuba is looking to purchase.

“There is so much speculation of their needs for goods,” he said.

John Kavulich, president of U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said Tampa should be concerned with competition from the world — not just Florida cities.

The latest report released by his Economic Council says that so far in 2015, Cuba has purchased $71.5 million in agricultural commodities from the U.S. — on pace to be the lowest annual figure since the 2001, the first year the U.S. allowed such trade with Cuba to resume.

Some blame this on the U.S. decision not to extend trade credit to Cuba.

But even if the U.S. does allow Cuba to buy on credit, the terms may be unattractive, Kavulich said.

“Cuba buys most of its rice from Vietnam, for example, through government contracts that allow for up to two years to pay for it,” he said. “Do you think Uncle Ben’s will give Cuba two years to pay?”

The first opportunities for business expansion under Obama’s initiative are in telecommunications equipment and building supplies — two areas in which other countries may prove more competitive.

Cuba already is in advanced talks, according to some reports last week, with Chinese telecom equipment company Huawei.

What’s more, Cuba does appear poised to regain its pre-Castro status as a premiere tourist destination — one industry Tampa could leverage because its proximity.

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The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba since Obama eased travel somewhat has risen 30 percent, according to a recent report from Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism. And Tampa International Airport reported an increase in passengers for its five weekly flights to Cuba during the same period.

But soon, Tampa will have more competition.

This summer, Orlando’s airport will begin competing in the Cuban charter flight business when it launches a weekly flight to Havana that may expand with demand.

And a representative of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport will attend one of the Cuban diplomat’s meetings in Sarasota today, said airport president and CEO Rick Piccolo.

“There is interest in flights to Cuba but I don’t think we currently have enough critical mass in this section of the region,” Piccolo said. “But if things change and we think we can take advantage of it in the future, then we will consider it.”

Tourism was among the topics discussed in Cuba by the Pinellas delegation, too, said Reyes with Saltmarsh advisers.

“We could see smaller cruise ships and ferries one day coming to Pinellas to and from Cuba,” Reyes said.

Currently, Cuba averages a total of 3 million tourists a year from around the world.

If the U.S. travel ban is lifted entirely, as a bipartisan group of senators is working to achieve, there could be enough tourism business to go around.

The Havana Consulting Group said a potential 5 to 7 million Americans would visit Cuba a year if there were no restrictions on where they could stay and what they could do and if the island could develop the infrastructure to accommodate them.

In anticipation of this day, Werner of Cuba Standard said, foreign investors are constructing new resorts in Cuba.

U.S. businessmen are prohibited by the embargo from joining in today.

“Those hotels could one day be American if one wants to buy it,” Werner said. “Marriott, for example, would have turnkey operations ready to go there.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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