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CUBA
Increased trade with the United States
Patricia Olguin
8/26/2003
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For the first time since 1963, a ship sailing under the US flag docks in Habana.

The US economic blockade against Cuba has begun to crack. After more than four decades, a cargo ship with a US flag and US crew docked in Havana.

The Helen III — a barge operated by Maybank Shipping — tied up at the Havana port on July 11 with six metric tons of wood and 1,614 metric tons of paper purchased in the United States by Alimport, the Cuban food trading company, for a total of US$1.5 million.

The vessel — a kind of floating warehouse towed by a tugboat — needed special permission from US authorities to enter the Cuban port because of the strict blockade laws enforced by Washington since 1963 (LP, Nov. 6, 2000).

Alimport director Pedro Alvarez, who accompanied Jack Maybank, president of the US shipping company, to the port to receive the ship, said that since December 2001 the island has purchased 1.4 million metric tons of products in the United States at a cost of nearly $480 million.

The US government relaxed the blockade in November 2001 after Hurricane Michelle swept through the Caribbean island, and authorized the shipment of humanitarian aid, principally food and other agricultural products. The total amount was to be determined by US experts (LP, March 11, 2002).

Cuba gratefully acknowledged the gesture but decided to buy the merchandise it needed directly from the US market even though bills had to be paid on delivery, with no credit line, and Cuban ships were not allowed to enter US waters.

According to Alvarez, 71 percent of the products purchased by Cuba from US companies were shipped in US vessels but under the flags of Mexico, Panama or Liberia in order to avoid the red tape that goes with obtaining a license from the US Treasury Department.

The principal beneficiaries of this unique form of trade are farmers in the southern United States who are betting on the normalization of bilateral relations with Cuba and greater business with the island.

According to some analysts, the sale of US agricultural products to the island would be more than $1 billion without current trade restrictions. And if the blockade were completely lifted, trade would reach $7 billion within a few years.

That notion has been reinforced by constant trips to Havana by US governors, local authorities and members of Congress to promote their states’ products and support normalizing relations with the island.

States such as Iowa, Illinois, North Dakota and Minnesota were the first to send high-level delegations to Cuba to explore, and in some cases establish, advantageous trade deals.

These visits, along with increased trade, resulted in the first-ever US Food and Agricultural Products Fair in Cuba last September, with the participation of about 700 US businesspeople representing about 300 companies.

Nevertheless, this growing trend towards bilateral trade still faces huge hurdles. Washington refused to grant the necessary permissions to businesses eager to display their products at a second fair planned for the end of this year. As a result, the fair was canceled.

Despite these setbacks, trade with Cuba, whose location makes it a natural market for the United States, continues to be an attractive commercial venture for US businesses trying to drill holes in Washington’s economic barriers.

Shortly before the arrival of the Helen III, Corpus Christi, Texas, became the first port in the United States to sign an agreement with Alimport allowing the shipment of products to Cuba.

Cuban officials claimed that 11 other US ports would soon follow Corpus Christi’s example. "It would please me greatly if the entire fleet of the US Merchant Marine could participate in this shipping venture," said Alvarez. o

 


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A ship under the US flag docks in Cuba for the first time in 40 years. (Foto. MAYBANK)
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