TAMPA — Mickey Mouse might have as much of an impact on Tampa-Cuba relations as José Martí.
Before the embargo against the island-nation, Tampa and Cuba were major trading partners. Tampa primarily sent cattle and got tobacco.
Local leaders who favor normalizing relations are now pushing for a renewed trade relationship with Cuba. And they believe Port Tampa Bay has an edge over competing U.S. ports because of a century-old connection between Tampa and Cuba that includes the use of Ybor City by freedom fighter José Martí as a staging ground during his War of Independence against Spain in the 1890s.
Port Tampa Bay is indeed a preferred partner for Cuba's Port of Mariel, according to a statement to the Tampa Bay Times by TC Mariel, the company that runs the container shipment operation there.
But access to Orlando is the reason, not any shared history, according to the statement, forwarded to the Times by TC Mariel's managing director Charles Baker.
Orlando is coveted because it is a destination for tourists and home to many regional distribution hubs for inbound cargo that would prefer their containers land in nearby Tampa rather than Miami.
Even as the embargo endures, according to the TC Mariel statement, the Port of Mariel and Port Tampa Bay still can prosper from a relationship if Congress or the president repeals a separate federal rule — one prohibiting ships from any country that dock in Cuba from docking in the United States within 180 days.
Direct trade with Cuba would still be forbidden in the United States because of the embargo, but a repeal of the 180-day rule might allow other nations to send cargo to Tampa through Cuba.
That echoes what Baker recently told the U.S.-based global trade publication, the Journal of Commerce.
"If you allow transshipment to take place from Mariel to U.S. ports, you could open up service to Tampa, which is the closest port to Orlando," Baker is quoted as saying.
This falls in line with efforts by Port Tampa Bay to market its facility as a gateway to Central Florida, made possible through the recent purchase of two giant gantry cranes to help grow cargo container business and by the state's construction of the Interstate 4 Crosstown Connector that moves traffic quickly from the port to Interstate 4 and on to Orlando.
"Port Tampa Bay is Cuba-ready and we are open to any legal opportunities," said Edward Miyagishima, the port's vice president of communications.
A delegation of Cuba's port leaders is expected to visit Port Tampa Bay within the next few months.
Tampa-based international public relations firm Tucker/Hall will lead a separate delegation of local maritime officials to Cuba in October to speak with maritime counterparts there.
"If Mariel picks Tampa Bay as its priority entry point to the United States, it will be transformative for our region," said Bill Carlson, the president of Tucker/Hall. "We will have access to the world's markets."
The recent widening of the Panama Canal was designed to accommodate larger sea vessels that can carry more cargo. Port Tampa Bay cannot handle these ships.
But if such ships stop in ports that can, the cargo could be loaded onto smaller boats to be taken to Tampa and then distributed throughout the region. This is called transshipment.
The Port of Mariel was built to accommodate these larger ships. It covers 180 square miles west of Havana and features factories, storage for trade and the TC Mariel terminal, which has a current annual capacity of around 800,000 containers and can be expanded to handle 3 million.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved an amendment to the 2017 financial appropriations bill to repeal the 180-day docking rule.
If the amendment fails, the 180-day rule can still be worked around, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
By order of the president, the Treasury Department can issue a general license allowing cargo ships to sail between the United States and Cuba as frequently as needed.
That's how the cruise industry is able to run regular trips from the United States to Cuba despite also being bound by the 180-day rule.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has sponsored a bill to end the Cuban embargo.
Meantime, Castor supports repealing the 180-day rule to open transshipment between the Port of Mariel and Port Tampa Bay.
"It is time that Congress moves forward with a modern policy towards greater engagement with Cuba," Castor said, and stops imposing "outdated restrictions on Americans and our communities and choke off jobs and trade and put our ports at a disadvantage."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.