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Cuba invites Tampa to trade

Container ships could carry food between the Port of Tampa and the island once a month.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003


TAMPA -- The head of Cuba's state-owned import buying agency has invited Tampa port officials to visit and renew historical trade ties between his nation and the city.

Pedro Alvarez, chief executive of Alimport, also wrote in a letter delivered Thursday that he asked a shipper in Jacksonville to develop a monthly container service connecting Cuba and Tampa. He said Tampa hasn't benefited from the U.S.-sanctioned trade like competing ports.

"You can rely on us to ... make sure that the Tampa port channels major flows of cargo between our two countries and recovers its historic position in this trade," Alvarez wrote.

Port officials postponed a decision on the invitation until after an April briefing by federal agencies that regulate trade with Cuba. But board members were receptive to the offer, delivered by an attorney for Tampa food wholesaler Florida Produce of Hillsborough County, which has sold nearly $500,000 of products to Alimport through Jacksonville's port.

"I think it should be seriously considered," said Hillsborough County commissioner Pat Frank, who serves on the port's governing board. "If we could legitimately transport goods in and out, I see no downside."

But Tampa lawyer Ralph Fernandez said port officials shouldn't help arrange trade deals that prop up Fidel Castro's regime and terrorist groups he supports. He also says trading with Cuba through the port would violate a state law against conducting business with any country in the Western Hemisphere that lacks diplomatic recognition by the United States.

"Morally, there's a world of reasons why this carpet-bagging attitude is wrong for America and very wrong for Cuba," Fernandez said.

Since the U.S. government first permitted sales of agricultural products on a cash-only basis in July 2001, American companies have aggressively pursued business in the nation of 11.2-million people.

Until recently, Port of Tampa officials had little enthusiasm for the trade. They didn't pitch shippers carrying Cuba-bound exports to use the port, figuring most of the products were Midwestern grain going out of ports near the Mississippi River.

Port executives were conspicuously absent from a U.S. food and agriculture expo in Havana last fall that attracted 290 companies, trade groups and state agencies. Florida had the largest delegation with 31 companies.

It has become increasingly clear that companies in Tampa's back yard are shipping exports bound for Cuba out of other ports.

Florida Produce sent containers of apples, onions, raisins and other foods on eight separate ships run by Crowley Liner Services out of Jacksonville, owner Michael Mauricio said. Reilly Dairy and Food Co. of Tampa also ships through Jacksonville.

Last month, PCS Phosphate shipped 3,150 metric tons of animal feed supplement to Cuba from Port Manatee, and Cargill Fertilizer made a shipment of the same product from its Ruskin plant this week.

A report that port staff members gave the board Thursday recommended port executives make sales calls to Crowley and other shippers, attend trade shows and build a relationship with Cuba's Alimport.

"It is essential to engage with the appropriate officials in Cuba, Alimport, who procure the eligible U.S. commodities, to demonstrate (the port's) interest in this legal trade," the report stated.

Alvarez, Alimport's CEO, met earlier this month with Arthur Savage of ship agent A.R. Savage & Son and Mauricio of Florida Produce.

He asked them to work with Crowley to line up enough suppliers and freight forwarders to support a monthly container ship service between Tampa and Cuba. Alvarez also gave them the invitation for Frank, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and port chairman Joseph Diaz.

"This will be a true opportunity to engage in real trade negotiations," said Daniel Fernandez, an attorney representing Florida Produce. "We hope you'll quickly move Tampa into a competitive situation with other ports."

Any dealings with Cuban officials would risk the ire of Cuban exiles like Ralph Fernandez, said port director George Williamson, but their anger would be misdirected.

"Sure, we understand those sensitivities," he said. "But this is sanctioned by the U.S. government. Don't fuss at us, fuss at Washington. It's all legal."

-- Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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