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Trade trip to Cuba in limbo

The federal government is reviewing plans proposed by a Tampa port delegation.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 24, 2003


TAMPA -- A delegation from the Tampa Port Authority tentatively planned to travel to Cuba in June to meet with the island nation's government-owned buyer of food and agricultural products.

Now the trip is in limbo. The federal agency that licenses companies and groups to visit Cuba for trade talks is reviewing whether to let officials from Tampa and a number of other ports make future trips.

Port director George Williamson was surprised to hear about the review by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control because other port authorities have received licenses and traveled to Cuba to promote products moving across their docks.

"Jacksonville, Texas ports -- everybody's been down there," he said. "Now we're saying, 'Wait a minute.' "

Tampa's port applied for a different kind of license than port authorities traveled under in the past, said Treasury spokesman Taylor Griffin. "The Office of Foreign Asset Control and State Department are reviewing the request," he said.

Congress voted in 2000 to ease the trade embargo and let U.S. companies sell certain food, agricultural and medical products to Cuba on a cash-only basis.

Port authority officials skipped a major food and agriculture expo in Havana last fall and had dismissed the possibility of significant trade with Cuba. After learning that local companies with contracts from Cuba were shipping products through other Florida ports, the port authority board changed course.

Cuba's import purchasing arm, Alimport, invited board members in February to Havana to get acquainted and talk about trade opportunities.

The port applied in March for a six-month travel license to attend a "tentatively scheduled" meeting with Alimport in June to determine demand for cargo from Tampa.

The delegation would include Williamson, authority chairman Joseph Diaz, Hillsborough County commissioner Pat Frank, port counsel Dale Bohner and two guests: Louis Ricard of Cargill Inc. and Joe Guidry, the Tampa Tribune's deputy editorial page editor.

Bohner said Wednesday that the trip wasn't nailed down. Port officials had expected to get the license in May, then call Alimport to work out details, he said. "We're still hopeful that we'll be granted the license," he said.

In another sign of its new attitude, the port authority sponsored a seminar Wednesday on the opportunities and legalities of trading with Cuba.

Experts from academia, business and government told about 130 people at the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel that Cuba holds tremendous trade potential for Tampa and Florida.

But because Cuba has so little hard currency and the U.S. government doesn't allow sales on credit, they said, it's unlikely export sales will exceed the current $200-million a year in the near future.

Cuba's recent crackdown on dissidents and the approaching 2004 presidential elections make it unlikely the Bush administration will loosen trade restrictions, said Van Yeutter of Cargill, which sells food and agricultural products to Cuba.

"It's not the bonanza people think it is at this time," said Diaz, the port authority chairman.

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

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