Alabama came to Tampa on Thursday to sign an agreement with Cuba.
The seaport in Mobile and Cuba's National Port Authority pledged to find ways to expand the business they do with each other — the kind of deal that three ports in Florida had worked toward until Gov. Rick Scott last week scuttled them with a threat to pull their funding.
Alabama State Port Authority CEO James Lyons said the timing was coincidental. The memorandum of understanding had been planned for at least three months. Tampa was convenient since both parties would be here.
The occasion Thursday was an international conference called "Planning for Shifting Trade," sponsored by the American Association of Port Authorities at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.
Some U.S. exports to Cuba — such as agricultural products and food — already are allowed as exceptions to the trade embargo imposed more than 50 years ago after the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro embraced communism.
Nothing is shipped to Cuba out of Tampa today.
Mobile ranks fifth among U.S. ports in exports to Cuba, said John Kavulich of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, but still sent just 47,024 tons to the island in 2016. Working with Cuba is mostly about potential, not the present, Kavulich said.
That future may lie in the Mariel Economic Special Development Zone. Less than 50 miles from Havana, the zone has Cuba's largest container port and may grow into a shipment hub for the Caribbean.
"On this occasion, it was not possible to sign the MOUs with the ports in Florida," said Ana Teresa Igarza, director of Mariel. "The authorities of the ports we visited indicated interest to sign this agreement in the future."
Cuba now has five agreements with U.S. ports. This was the first signed in the U.S.
Port Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades and Port of Palm Beach had planned to sign memorandums of understanding similar to Mobile's during visits to their cities by a delegation from Cuba.
Igarza said Port Tampa Bay decided against signing a memorandum Jan. 20, five days before Gov. Scott issued his funding threat in a series of tweets. Scott followed up in the 2017 budget he submitted this week with a provision denying state money for port infrastructure projects that expand for trade with Cuba.
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