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Mission to Cuba seeks a door

Tampa port group is trying to increase trade now and prepare for the day when unrestricted trade resumes with the island.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published July 25, 2003

TAMPA - A Tampa Port Authority delegation returned from a three-day trip Cuba with no solid deals but a better sense of how to pursue trade with the island nation.

Exports from Tampa are limited because the U.S. government allows only cash sales of agricultural and medical goods, and most of Cuba's purchases are wheat and corn from the Midwest, port director George Williamson said Thursday.

But Cuban officials recognize they can save money moving certain cargo from Florida and parts of the Southeast through Tampa, he added."They were very preliminary discussions," said Williamson. "But there's clearly an interest in shipping from Tampa."

The group, which also included Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Frank and port authority chairman Joseph Diaz, was invited in February by Alimport, the state-owned agency that handles Cuba's import purchases.

They arrived in Havana on Sunday and spent Monday meeting with officials of Alimport and the government agency that runs Cuba's seaports. The group toured a shipping container facility in Havana and the bulk cargo port of Matanzas before returing to Tampa on Wednesday.

The trip was criticized by local anti-Castro activists, who said port officials are more interested in making money than in standing up for Cubans oppressed by the dictator.

"They're about money and I'm about morals," said Dario Diaz, a Tampa attorney whose father fled Cuba as a wanted dissident in 1960. "If it's right, it's right. If it's wrong, it's wrong - even if you're making money at it."

At a news conference Thursday, Williamson said he saw nothing wrong with promoting trade allowed by Uncle Sam.

"If it's legal and can move, why not move it through Tampa?" he said. "It's blessed by the U.S. government. It is legal trade."

Only three shipments to Cuba - all animal feed supplements - have moved through the port since the U.S. government eased export rules.

A handful of local companies such as Florida Produce of Hillsborough County sell goods to Cuba but send them to ports such as Jacksonville, where shipping lines have regular service to the island.

Cuba pays the cost - $400 to truck a 40-foot container to Jacksonville, said Mike Mauricio, owner of Florida Produce. But his products would be more competitive shipped through Tampa, and money spent loading them on ships could stay in the local economy, Mauricio said.

"The government allowed this (trade) more than a year and a half ago," he said. "Why's the Tampa Port Authority still have to do its due diligence?"

Port authority officials told Cuban officials they would identify suppliers that could ship goods through the port, Williamson said. If Cuba agrees to buy enough of their products, he said, the next job would be attracting a shipping line to take goods from Tampa.

Cuban officials asked for help lobbying to lift or further loosen the U.S. trade embargo, although they said that wasn't a condition of doing business, according to Williamson. The local group declined. "We don't do politics," Williamson said.

The port director said he was impressed by the Cubans' knowledge of Tampa and of the port's business.

They brought up cruises, saying that if the U.S. government lifted the ban on visits to Cuba, Tampa could have three- and four-day trips that cruise lines can't offer now from the port.

"They certainly know who we are," Williamson said.

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

[Last modified July 25, 2003, 01:33:11]

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