Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Jacksonville Shipping Salivates about Cuba; the Port Could Benefit When Castro's Regime Passes

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Jacksonville Shipping Salivates about Cuba; the Port Could Benefit When Castro's Regime Passes

Article excerpt

Byline: TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS

When Dick Morales was growing up in Cuba, his family's concrete products business would buy wire mesh from the United States. It was a product that would be shipped through the then-much-smaller Port of Jacksonville on its way to the island country.

"I came over to Jacksonville as a young man in the summers," said Morales, 68, who left Cuba when he was 22 and eventually settled in the city he had seen in his youth.

In the four-plus decades since Morales left, Cuba hasn't received deliveries of wire mesh or much else. But now - as politicians and analysts try to determine the state of Fidel Castro's health and figure out what will happen when power passes to others - there's a rising possibility that shipping could resume in coming years, a situation that could work to Jacksonville's benefit.

"It's definitely going to impact all of Florida," said Morales, who is treasurer of the board of the Jacksonville Port Authority, "and from the sea commerce point of view, in my opinion, Jacksonville will be the most impacted."

That impact on Florida is expected to be huge, said William Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida who studies Cuba. Perhaps, he said, "more significant than anything in its economic history."

With a commanding presence in shipping to Puerto Rico and strong operations throughout the Caribbean, local shipping companies and industry experts say Jacksonville is in a good position to capitalize on any improvement in trade relations with Cuba. With established trade lanes from the port to the Caribbean as well as the infrastructure - highways and railroads - necessary to bring goods to the dock, Jacksonville has what several experts see as a good base upon which to build. Plus, some barriers to trade - particularly a politically active exile community - don't exist here.

"Because Jacksonville proper has no strong feeling toward the Castro regime, it might make the area more objective," Acre said. "Once you get away from South Florida, the interest in Cuba is all business. Down there, it's very personal and very political."

The relatively small amount of goods that now can be legally shipped to Cuba come from all over the United States, but that's for political reasons, particularly an attempt to create a broader base of support for the trade; absent those reasons, Messina said, Florida likely would supply the bulk of agricultural products and serve as a transshipment point for other goods.

"There's a lot to suggest that Jacksonville could be a major player in U.S.-Cuba trade," Messina said.

Jacksonville has a history of sending its ships to Cuba, dating back to gunrunners who brought men and supplies there in the days leading up to the Spanish-American war in 1898.

More recently, in 2001, Jacksonville-based Crowley Liner Services became the first company to ship goods from the U.S. to Havana in nearly 40 years.

(Crowley since has sent a number of ships to Cuba, although recently they leave from Port Everglades and include Havana as part of a route that also services Central America.)

Since the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 was enacted, more than $2 billion worth of food has been shipped from the United States to Cuba - including $540 million worth in the past year - said Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association.

Other nations are doing more, said Jones, whose organization fights to get the trade embargo lifted, but there's enough demand for American goods that food imports could be worth $1 billion a year.

But shipping that food is a business Jacksonville wouldn't gain without a fight. As well as South Florida ports, including the Port of Miami and Port Everglades, shipments now go to Cuba through Mobile, Ala., and Corpus Christi, Texas, among others. …

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