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Port Manatee should temper Cuba dreams, expert says

Port Manatee should temper Cuba dreams, expert says
September 17, 2015 Updated 9 hours ago

PORT MANATEE — The editor of a Cuba-focused business and economics newspaper is urging Port Manatee officials to temper trade expectations for the communist island nation, despite the resumption of diplomatic ties with the U.S.

Johannes Werner, editor of the Florida-based Cuba Standard, told port authority members and management Thursday that long-term prospects for doing business with Cuba are good, but that any immediate rush to open and cargo markets there won’t pay off for some time. In the short term, he said, that nation’s government is moving slowly and dealing largely with nations with longstanding trade relations.

Cuba will not, Werner said, emulate the U.S. free-market system any time soon. Still, he urged the port and its clients to be ready to do business in Cuba when it finally opens to U.S business.

“Cuba will remain communist,” he said. “It will remain a very different market for anyone who wants to do business there.”

Werner made his presentation to the port to address what he called “inflated expectations” in the U.S. for Cuban trade.

Port Manatee is looking to the reopening island as a potential boost to its bottom line. It has attracted two passenger ferry companies interested in operating out of the port. Also, the port’s executive director, Carlos Buqueras, believes cargo trade through Cuba’s newly built port at Mariel could also benefit the port.

But Werner, a Sarasota resident, said other nations have beaten the U.S. to the punch in Cuba. Brazilian money and contractors built Muriel, which likely puts that South American nation first in line when it comes to trade there. On the passenger ferry front, Werner said a Spanish company has already proposed to build and operate a passenger ferry terminal at the Port of Havana.

Cuba has yet to license any U.S. ferry operators to sail to the country, even though the U.S. government has already licensed operators on its end. Also, a half-century-old trade against Cuba remains in place.

At the same time, normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba is credited for accelerating Cuba’s status as the next great tourism and trade market. Open to tourists since the early 1990s, the island nation is expected to double its tourism volume from the current 3 million annually in the next few years, Werner said. At Mariel, 119 international companies are prepared to commit to bringing goods and facilities to the port.

Cuban government officials are receiving international delegations daily and are travelling the world to talk business. They are looking to capitalize on Cuba’s traditional place as a hub in the Caribbean.

“The pace of deals is accelerating now,” Werner said.

The Cuban economy has room to grow. Roughly the size of Florida, the island has a domestic product of about $77 billion a year, according to the World Bank. By comparison, the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metro area posted a 2013 GDP of about $281 billion, government figures show.

Werner’s cautionary presentation caught the interest of several people. Chris Sheils, general manager of Arrow Terminals’ Port Manatee stevedoring operation, said his company wants to see an end to the embargo and other restrictions on cargo trade with Cuba. While ending the embargo is in the purview of Congress, Werner said Barack Obama may be able to make some executive decisions before he leaves office that could get freighters moving.

Authority member Betsy Benac asked Werner what the timeframe is for U.S. companies wanting to do business in Cuba. He said some companies should be able to start now by going after tiny niche markets, but most will have to wait for their turn in a “phase in” process that will likely stretch over the next couple of years.

The Cuba Standard circulates in the U.S. and internationally. About a third of its readers are in Cuba. Port Manatee also subscribes to the publication.

Werner has been a frequent traveller to Cuba. He said he plans to return to the nation later this year.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on [email protected]

Source: Port Manatee should temper Cuba dreams, expert says | Port Manatee | Bradenton Herald –

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