Port Finally Focuses On Cuban Opportunities

Has the Port of Tampa taken a bum rap when it comes to the issue of Cuba? George Williamson, the port’s director, thinks so.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric out there,” says Williamson. “This is not a political issue to me. I believe the media did a disservice to us.

“We’re portrayed as having no interest in business in Cuba. Full stop. We have limited resources, but we’re interested. We’re interested in all trade, wherever it goes. If opportunity is there, we’ll chase it down.”

So how did such a “disservice” happen?

For openers, it sure did look like the Port of Tampa had been, well, missing the boat when it came to business opportunities — present and future — in Cuba. Mayor Dick Greco, who serves on the Port Authority, could lunch with Fidel Castro, and County Commissioner Pat Frank, who’s also on the Port Authority, could advocate legal trading with Cuba, but seemingly nothing had changed at the port. Although the hard-line Bush Administration had eased the 42-year-old trade embargo in 2001 to permit the sale of food and agricultural products to Cuba on a cash-only basis, it didn’t appear to prompt any “chasing” at the port of Tampa. Next month U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa becomes the first Florida congressman to make an official visit to Cuba.

Item: There was that agricultural expo in Havana last fall that drew 285 American exhibitors. No state was better represented than Florida — with 31. The Port of Tampa was a no show — even though no other American city can match Tampa’s cultural and trade roots with Cuba. While Windfalls-R-Us hardly beckons right now, Tampa’s overall business potential — from cargo to cruise-and-ferry passengers — remains substantial.

If nothing else, it was a chance to better position Tampa for opportunities with post-Castro Cuba. Relationships count in matters of international commerce.

Item: To assure that its policy was clear, the port issued this statement: “Unless or until the official U.S. government position changes, the Tampa Port Authority will not conduct sales and marketing trips to Cuba and will not be joining regional, Florida or U.S. trade missions (sanctioned or not) to Cuba in the pursuit of business.”

Not exactly the anthem of a port proactively — or even reactively — “chasing business.”

Item: Earlier this month there was the very public criticism of the port by a prominent shipping agent. Arthur Savage, who is licensed by the U.S. Treasury to do business with Cuba, told the Tribune that “The Port of Tampa is doing nothing to promote trade with Cuba and I’m baffled.” He recently expedited a dicalcium phosphate shipment to the Cuban port of Cienfuegos — by way of Port Manatee.

“Tampa Bay has a geographic and cultural advantage in trading with Cuba,” added Savage. “We need to begin taking advantage of it before we lose out to our neighboring states and counties.”

Item: A fortnight ago Dagoberto Rodriguez Barrera, the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, barnstormed into town to talk to local business people and media. Of course, he’s a pitchman for the Cuban government, and he made the standard case for ending the U.S. embargo.

But he also extolled Tampa as a “perfect” fit for Cuban trade. He then cautioned against being left in the wake of more aggressive ports, such as Manatee and Jacksonville. His comments made local headlines. He met briefly with Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, but not Williamson, who was out of town. Some port staffers, however, did sit in on a session.

Within days of Savage firing his blamethrower and Rodriguez Barrera courting the local business community and media, Tampa Port Authority Chairman Joe Diaz said the port should be pursuing trade opportunities with Cuba as long as those pursuits “stay within the confines of the law.” Moreover, he’s now actually asking staff to check it out — meaning researching the fine print of embargo exemptions. He also has directed the marketing and legal departments to get up to speed on Cuban trade possibilities by next month’s meeting.

This much seems apparent. A series of events — from Hurricane Michelle-prompted embargo exemptions and an influential mayor’s sortie to Havana to insider fault-finding and high-visibility media criticism — have taken a toll. Call it pragmatism — goosed by some bad press.

It’s an about-face, and it’s about time.

Granted, Tampa’s top-priority markets are China and Mexico, and, no, the port doesn’t have competitive container facilities. And Havana-bound grain shipped down the Mississippi isn’t a logistical match with Tampa. And, yes, the port has but a two-man marketing department. But practicable options now exist. Exercising them may still make waves — but not tsunamis — with Tampa’s dwindling, embargo-enamored Cuban community.

“Fertilizers could certainly move out of here,” acknowledges Williamson. “That’s a good piece of business for us to go chase. Our job now is to focus a bit more on that market and see what our opportunities are.”

So don’t be surprised to see the Port of Tampa, two-man marketing staff notwithstanding, showing the flag at an upcoming Havana exposition. And it should shock no one when the phosphate market actually includes Cuba. In fact, a lack of such scenarios would truly be a disservice.

As for the politics? That’s the way it (embar)goes.

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