Mississippi ports eye Cuba, sign agreements in Havana

HAVANA,Feb. 21th  (Reuters) – The Mississippi ports of Pascagoula and Gulfport signed agreements in Cuba on Monday with an eye to future business and with a Republican U.S. senator from the state looking on, despiteconcerns President Donald Trump might backtrack on improved relations.

Senator Thad Cochran is the only Republican among five U.S. senators and a U.S. representative on a three-day visit to the Communist-run Caribbean island to discuss relations and explore business opportunities.

The agreements were signed during a business forum to explore future trade attended by Cochran.

“There is great potential for business between these ports and Cuba due to the geographical proximity and the excellent fluvial and maritime ways Mississippi has,” state-run media quoted Maria de la Luz B’Hamel, director of commercial policy with the United States at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, as saying.

The event was closed to foreign journalists.

The congressional delegation arrived on Sunday and is being led by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who was instrumental in efforts to normalize relations under former Democratic President Barack Obama.

Cuba watchers are looking closely for signs of how the fragile U.S. detente with Cuba will fare under the new Trump administration.

The Republican president has threatened to scrap moves to normalize relations, one of Obama’s signature foreign policy initiatives, if he does not get “a better deal.”

Port authorities along the U.S. southern coast are strong proponents of increased trade and travel with Cuba, and some have expressed interest in using Mariel, located on the northwest coast of Cuba, as a transshipment hub.

Similar agreements were signed last month with Virginia, Louisiana and Alabama.

The Florida ports of Everglades and Palm Beach had also been planning to sign deals, but balked after Republican state Governor Rick Scott threatened to cancel their funding if they did business with the “Cuban dictatorship.”