TAMPA – In the minds of many, ties between Tampa and Cuba were among the strongest in Florida before the Castro-led revolution’s impact on U.S. politics, trade and travel.
Cuban trade through the Port of Tampa evolved from cattle shipments in the 1850s to more than a dozen monthly cargo and passenger ferry trips a century later. National Airlines flew nonstop between Tampa and Havana into the early 1960s with DC-7Bs, its largest airliner.
Today, a wave of euphoria is sweeping across the Bay area over prospects for improved U.S.-Cuba travel and trade, mostly because of the Obama administration’s fresh outlook on relations between the two countries.
President Barack Obama broadened Cuban-American family travel opportunities to Cuba on Monday and headed into the weekend Summit of the Americas with word from Raul Castro that all discussions are possible.
But the enthusiasm has largely overshadowed the battle Tampa faces to restore its one-time competitive trade and travel advantages with Cuba.
Since the Castro revolution, thousands of Cubans have settled in South Florida. Miami is one of only three U.S. airports, along with New York and Los Angeles, with U.S. permission to handle charter flights to and from Cuba.
Port Everglades has jumped ahead of other Florida ports with cargo service on Crowley Maritime Corp. serving Cuba on a route from New York through Nicaragua.
But the competition isn’t just from other Florida cities. Only 6 percent of the 5 million metric tons of approved U.S. export commodities to Cuba — mostly grain, wood products and medical goods — moved through Florida ports between 2006 and 2008, while ports in Louisiana and Texas took more than 80 percent of the business.
‘Plenty of competition’
Sailings from the Port of Tampa to Cuba mostly involve shipments of animal feed additive handled by Tampa-based A.R. Savage & Son Inc.
“We’re not even in the game,” said Carl Lindell, a member of the Tampa Port Authority board who in February proposed sending a port envoy to Cuba to establish business ties for Tampa.
Instead, the board opted to produce a report on Cuban market potential that will be discussed at Tuesday’s monthly port authority meeting. Board members’ concerns ranged from the need to include Cuba commerce in a strategic plan to potential political repercussions.
“We should not wait for President Obama to do something,” Lindell said in an interview Friday. “There is going to be plenty of competition.”
Sal Pontillo, chairman of the Miami-based Florida Export Finance Corp., who spent 40 years as an international banker and a backer of enhanced U.S.-Cuba trade, agrees.
“Miami, Miami, Miami and maybe Houston and New Orleans would be big competitors to Tampa.”
Phosphate, dairy cattle, food stuffs and general cargo that would include electronics and telephone technology could be among U.S. exports to Cuba, while Cuba could export fish and agricultural products.
Add Mobile, Ala., New Orleans and Jacksonville to the list, said Albert Fox Jr., founder of the Tampa-based Alliance For Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.
Fox was disappointed that Obama did not move to eliminate trade restrictions and permit travel to all Americans.
Politics have prevented Tampa officials from following through on trade discussions with Cuba, he said.
But Parke Wright IV, a member of Tampa’s Lykes family, founders of the area’s pre-eminent shipping company, returned from a visit to Havana last week with messages from Cuban officials that they remain eager to do business with Tampa.
“The biggest market for Cuban agriculture is Miami, and Tampa could be No. 2,” said Wright, who opened China to shipping routes for Lykes.
Wright said he is working on plans for a possible passenger ferry-cargo service between Tampa and Cuba.
“The Port of Tampa lost 54 percent of its revenue when Cuban trade was halted in the 1960s,” Wright said. “Tampa is only 307 nautical miles from Havana, so we have the opportunity to represent the United States with international trade.”
He noted the efforts of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who began a push in February for Tampa International Airport to become the nation’s fourth airport to be allowed to stage charter flights to serve Cuba.
“I’m worried that some Cubans in Miami could corner the pipeline into the president and control policy that would not be good for Tampa, so that is why it is important Rep. Castor is supporting free trade and new air service for Tampa,” Wright said.
Tampa also could gain a Washington ally with the Obama administration if the Senate approves Obama’s pick for undersecretary of commerce for international trade, Tampa native Frank Sanchez.
At least two companies — Florida-based Gulfstream Air Charter and California-based Island Travel & Tours Inc. — have indicated interest in flying Cuban charters out of Tampa if the city gets permission.
Aside from the fallout from political opposition, the only downside for the Bay area if Cuban travel and trade are loosened is Pinellas County’s mainstay tourism industry. Officials there appear cautious, though not worried.
“I think there will be a big curiosity factor at first … in the long run, Cuba will be like any of our other Caribbean competition, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, etc.,” D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, wrote in an e-mail.
He said many Canadians, who have free access to travel in Cuba, say they rarely leave the resort other than for escorted day trips into Havana and that Cuban hotels suffer from a lack of consistency in food and service.
“I think we just need to keep reminding our customers and prospective customers about the unique character of the destination and our award-winning beaches,” he added.
It is difficult to quantify the potential size of a post-embargo, Cuban waterborne trade market and the pace of growth, the Port of Tampa’s report to be released Tuesday states.
“However, Tampa stands well positioned to be able to benefit from such opportunities as they emerge,” it said.
Bill Hauf, the California entrepreneur who wants to offer charter service from Tampa, agrees — if politicians can get beyond the customary political pros and cons, and Florida ramps up as a competitor.
“I focused on Tampa because it has the third-largest Cuban-American population in the United States behind South Florida and the New York-Union City, N.J., area,” Hauf said.
“With the Cuban-American passengers and all the baggage they like to haul to their family members — they take as much as 150 pounds apiece — the prospects for business are very good.”
TAMPA, CUBA: BOUND BY HISTORY
1858: Capt. James McKay starts shipping cattle from Florida to Cuba.
1886: The first Cuban cigars are manufactured in Tampa.
Henry B. Plant’s steamer begins Tampa-Key West-Havana service.
1891 to 1894: Jose Marti, father of the Cuban independence movement, comes to Tampa, delivering speeches on the steps of Ybor City’s cigar factories.
1898: Theodore Roosevelt and the 1st Cavalry volunteers, called the Rough Riders, arrive in Tampa, the staging point for U.S. soldiers embarking for the Spanish-American War in Cuba.