Americans can now bring home as many cigars and as much rum as they want from Cuba, a place that's famous for them.
But it's a more workaday change in a host of regulatory changes announced by the White House on Friday that's likely to ripple furthest across the Tampa Bay economy.
Foreign ships that dock in Cuba for trade purposes can now travel directly to the United States to load or unload freight. Previously, such vessels had to wait 180 days, a trade killer.
The change is seen as a major step toward connecting Port Tampa Bay and Cuba's Port of Mariel, enabling the local port to use the Cuban operation as a stop for cargo moving to and from major global shipping centers.
"The new regulatory changes announced today represent the continued progress for families and businesses," U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said in an email. "I am particularly pleased to see the changes address the so-called '180-day rule,' an onerous restriction on shipping between our two countries. Port Tampa Bay is 'Cuba-ready.' "
The Panama Canal, a major global shipping route, was widened to fit new, larger vessels that carry more cargo.
Port Tampa Bay cannot accommodate these ships, but the Port of Mariel can. Cargo from larger ships that stop in Mariel could be loaded onto smaller vessels and brought to Tampa for distribution in a process called transshipment.
And the Port of Mariel, near Havana, is expected to grow into the major transshipment hub for countries seeking to trade in the Caribbean region, which includes Florida.
In September, a spokesman for TC Mariel, the company the runs the Cuban port's container shipment operation, said his firm has its eye on Port Tampa Bay as a transshipment center because of its proximity to Orlando, home to regional distribution hubs serving all Florida — the nation's third most-populous state.
Transshipment might still be blocked by a separate U.S. regulation that forbids any items offloaded in Cuba from entering the United States.
But T.C. Mariel considers the 180-day rule the biggest obstacle to trade with Tampa.
Meantime, eliminating the 180-day rule can connect Port Tampa Bay and the Port of Mariel in other ways.
Cargo lines may now be more interested in using Port Tampa Bay for direct trade with Cuba. An embargo that only Congress can change remains in place, but U.S. companies can still sell goods such as agricultural products and building supplies to the island nation and Port Tampa Bay claims to be the closest U.S. port to Havana.
In addition, as long as nothing new is loaded onto a vessel in Mariel, a ship carrying freight such as automobiles, furniture, toys or clothing can now unload some cargo in Cuba then continue on to deliver some of it to a U.S. port, said Doug Jacobson, a sanctions lawyer with Jacobson Burton Kelley in Washington, D.C.
"This makes it easier for countries that want to trade with both Cuba and the U.S.," said Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in legal issues brought on by the embargo. "Now they can deliver to Panama, Jamaica, Cuba and the U.S."
Port Tampa Bay could not be reached Friday for comment. But Edward Miyagishima, the port's vice president of communications, previously told the Tampa Bay Times that "Port Tampa Bay is Cuba-ready and we are open to any legal opportunities."
Ships carrying military goods through Cuba still are not eligible to enter the United States for 180 days, even if the cargo is unloaded before it comes here.
The same goes for vessels carrying certain chemicals or electronic devices.
Such freight is considered "dual use cargo," attorney Muse said, meaning it can be used in ways potentially damaging to the United States.
The regulatory amendments announced Friday are the sixth and last in a series of changes made by President Barack Obama under his initiative to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba.
Other changes announced Friday will make it easier for U.S. companies to import Cuban-made pharmaceuticals and sell agricultural products to the island.
Still another will allow visitors to stuff a suitcase with cigars and rum.
Previously, Americans visiting Cuba could bring home a combined total of $100 worth per trip so long as they were for personal and not commercial use.
The limits have been lifted.
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes