When Cuba cut the ribbon on its nearly $1 billion mega-port at Mariel on Monday, the first ship at the dock came from South Florida’s Port Everglades Jacksonville-based Crowley arrived with some 50 shipping containers of mainly frozen chicken under a waiver to the five-decade-old U.S. embargo against the communist-run nation. It ships weekly to the island, underscoring opportunities for business when U.S.-Cuba ties are fully restored. Some analysts say the presence of the U.S. line at Mariel’s high-profile debut — when the presidents of Brazil, Venezuela and other Latin American nations were on hand for a regional conference — signals that Havana is not only open for business, but open for business with the United States.
“The long-term viability of Mariel depends on a change in U.S. policy,” said Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York and president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy. “Clearly, [Crowley’s presence] is a sign they’re willing to do business with the United States, even if we’re not willing to do business with Cuba now.” The largest infrastructure project in Cuba in decades, the modern Mariel port was financed mainly by a Brazilian loan and built by Brazil’s construction giant Odebrecht, which also is active in South Florida. The seaport aims to replace Havana as the island’s top cargo port, and once dredging is complete, will be able to host the world’s largest ships that soon will cross an expanded Panama Canal.
But perhaps most intriguing, the port some 30 miles west of Havana features a “special development zone,” where businesses will receive tax breaks and other incentives to set up, partly for export. Companies from Asia and South America, including Chinese carmaker Geely, already have expressed interest in the zone, now a 180-square-mile field.
Mariel’s launch comes as some see a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, including recent talks on migration and oil drilling. President Raul Castro has been opening Cuba’s state-controlled economy, allowing more self-employment, plus home and car sales, to spur growth.
Said Jay Brickman, vice president of Crowley Liner Services on his return from Mariel: “This could be a game-changer for the Cuban economy.”
(Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel)