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Confusion mounts over Port Tampa Bay's Cuba intentions

Published Feb. 2, 2017

TAMPA — The official word from Port Tampa Bay last week was that the port had no intention of entering into an agreement that would open the door to possible future business dealings with Cuba.

Other ports in Florida, meanwhile, acknowledged that they were — in the form of a so-called memorandum of understanding.

"We are taking a very conservative approach," the port's communications vice president, Edward Miyagishima, told the Tampa Bay Times on Jan. 25, adding, "we are not going to look at" an agreement without an okay from a federal agency that enforces the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

The truth is, according to an internal document obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, Port Tampa Bay had already drawn up a memorandum, gotten approval from the federal office, circulated the word in maritime circles and garnered congratulations for its efforts.

So why the denials?

Timing may be one reason. The port's public statement came as Gov. Rick Scott, a critic of efforts to normalize relations with the communist nation, was threatening via Twitter to cut funding for Cuba-friendly ports. Scott followed through on the threat in the 2017 budget he submitted this week.

The flip-flop comes as Port Tampa Bay is hosting an international maritime trade conference today featuring a panel discussion that includes port representatives from Cuba.

Word that Port Tampa Bay had indeed pursued its own Cuba deal came in an email leaked to Tampa public relations executive Bill Carlson, an advocate of improved relations between the United States and Cuba. Carlson forwarded the email and the attached memorandum to the Times, saying only that it came from an "insider" concerned that port executives "were not telling the truth."

The email was sent Jan. 13 from Port Tampa Bay's chief commercial officer, Raul Alfonso, to Steve Cernak, director of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

"Paul asked me to send you a copy of the draft MOU our Legal Dept. prepared and reviewed with the US State Dept. of Commerce, and OFAC," it says. "Paul" is Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson and OFAC is the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The agencies "found it was acceptable for us to execute," Alfonso wrote.

The memorandum says Port Tampa Bay and Cuba's National Port Authority would explore building a relationship through data and technological interchange, market studies and training.

Miyagishima, the port vice president, acknowledged Wednesday there was a memorandum but said no federal agency had approved it — contradicting the email from port commercial officer Alfonso.

Miyagishima also said Port Tampa Bay had informed Port Everglades of the decision not to sign.

That was news to Port Everglades spokeswoman Ellen Kennedy, who told the Times on Wednesday that her port's staff was under the impression Port Tampa Bay would sign. The first indication they received otherwise, Kennedy said, was in a Times story last week.

What's more, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, said the Cuban Embassy thought the agreement with Port Tampa Bay was a go based on contacts she had Dec. 11. Castor said she emailed congratulations to port CEO Anderson.

The ports in Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale intended to sign memorandums during visits last week by the Cuba port representatives. The two ports and Port Tampa Bay were comparing notes, Kennedy said.

Gov. Scott scuttled those plans with his Jan. 25 tweets, one of which said, "I don't believe any port in our state, none of them, should be doing business with a brutal dictator."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.