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American Shipper

Cuba considers Port of Virginia shipping prospects

Officials at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington have held at least 30 meetings with companies interested in doing business in the island nation.

   The Port of Virginia could be a leading gateway for the exchange of goods between the United States and Cuba, but for that to happen the U.S. Congress must first lift the current trade embargo, Juan Mario Lamigueiro, the deputy chief of mission in Washington, said Thursday in an interview with American Shipper.
   Products Cuba would like to sell in the U.S. market include biotechnology, medicines, and produce such as avocados, bananas, and sugar cane, said Lamigueiro.
   Cuban scientists have created a drug called Herberprot-P as a cure for diabetic foot ulcers that would likely be in demand by Americans, according to Lamigueiro. The drug is currently registered in several countries around the world and would require further testing and Food and Drug Administration approval before it could be sold in the United States.
   Cuba is also developing a vaccine for lung cancer.
   Officials in Cuba would like “to find an American company that is interested in biotech products and would apply for a license to import them from Cuba and commercialize them” in the United States, said Lamigueiro.
   In the last three months, Cuban officials at the Cuban Interest Section have held at least 30 meetings with companies interested in doing business in the island nation, Lamigueiro said earlier that evening in an address at the Virginia Maritime Association’s annual banquet in Norfolk.
   The activity is a reflection of the political opening between the United States and Cuba that was initiated by President Obama in December. The Obama administration is keen to normalize relations with Cuba. In April, Obama announced he intends to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of state-sponsor’s of terrorism, a key condition for further improving relations and establishing embassies. Congress is reviewing the decision.
   The December announcement on Cuba listed several limited conditions under which U.S. citizens can now travel to or conduct business with Cuba.
   U.S. exports of agricultural goods to Cuba have been permitted since 2000 as a form of humanitarian assistance, but are about half their peak of $750 million as other countries with easier trade rules have grabbed up some of the market share.
   In his speech, Lamigueiro said the Cuban government has implemented reforms since 2011 to expand private ownership, turn state-run farms into cooperatives, diversify trade and attract foreign investment.
   The state of Virginia is making an aggressive effort to court Cuba in hopes of expanding exports there. Shipments of agriculture and forestry products totaled about $30 million last year, making it the third largest exporter to Cuba among U.S. states. But exports such as soybeans, soy meal, apples, poultry and pork are down from $66 million in 2012. In the last two years, no apples from Virginia have been sent to Cuba.
   The trade opportunity in Cuba “is no longer a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Todd Haymore, Virginia’s agriculture and forestry secretary, told the large audience from the local maritime community. “And in my mind, it’s long overdue.”
   Haymore, who has made nine visits to Cuba during the past eight years and helped arrange a trade delegation by Gov. Terry McAuliffe for later this summer, said there are a lot of non-agricultural export opportunities for Virginia companies in Cuba too.
   “Agriculture and forestry can serve as a catalyst for that change,” he said.
   “For the Cuban people, the best apples are the apples that come from Virginia,” said Lamigueiro.
   It’s possible that up to 1 million Americans will travel to Cuba by next year and they will need new hotels, new infrastructure and imported products to support them, he said, pointing to the potential for expanded economic ties.
   The Port of Virginia is an excellent gateway for trade with Cuba because of its location and the existing economic relations between the island nation and Virginia, Lamigueiro said in the interview.
   He noted that the new Port of Mariel and special economic zone around it is poised to make Cuba a logistics and manufacturing hub for the Caribbean. The port, which was developed and constructed by Brazilian and Chinese companies and is operated by Singapore’s PSA International, is 55-feet deep and can handle super post-Panamax vessels. A cargo airport is also planned nearby.
   The ongoing restrictions on trade and travel prevented a top Cuban engineer from attending the Virginia Maritime Association’s conference, Juan Jacomino, second secretary of the Cuban Interest Section, said.
   Pedro Suarez is with the Cuban Ministry of Transportation, but was unable to obtain a visa in time for the conference even though he had booked a hotel and plane tickets. He wanted to talk to his peers about the Port of Mariel and learn about U.S. ports at the conference, as well as visit the Port of Virginia, Jacomino said.

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