Cuban ports could create future competition for PortMiami, expert says

Miami-based customs and international trade attorney Lenny Feldman was already looking at Cuban ports as possible competitors of PortMiami

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter

MIAMI - Lenny Feldman talked to Local 10 News Christina Vazquez Wednesday about the economic impact that Cuban ports with foreign investment could have on PortMiami.

Brazil has been investing in port infrastructure on the same harbor, where the Mariel boat lift exodus took place. In Miami, the city is immediately associated with the thousands of Cuban refugees arriving to Miami between April 15 and October 31, 1980. 

Mariel is now the port of the future in Cuba. Partially financed by loans from Brazil and built by a Brazilian construction firm, Oderecht, the $900 million state-of-the-art container port is operating in the seaside town.

"There's been a lot of let's say excitement and maybe concern over all the money that especially Brazil is pumping into the Port of Mariel in Cuba," said Feldman, who helps importers, exporters and intermediaries in the transportation industry move cargo globally.

While the ruling Communist Party maintains that state control takes precedence, the ambitious development is one of a series of reforms that have been made since Raul Castro came to power in 2008.

Feldman said he recently led a panel discussion with the Florida Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association on how foreign investment on Cuban ports could potentially create future competition for PortMiami.

Cuba created a foreign trade zone at the deep-water facility, which has an annual capacity of up to one million containers and can host some of the world's largest cargo ships. 

"They call it more of a special development zone that's really big in South Florida now that means cargo coming in and out at reduced or no duty rates," said Feldman, who is with Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg. "They are becoming a competitor for that type of service as well."

The widening of the Panama Canal means more of the world's largest ships will soon be passing through the Caribbean, providing Cuba with the chance to benefit as a transhipment hub due to its strategically favorable location.

Panama, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic also have free-trade-zones. Cuban officials have said that the objective for Mariel and the free zone is to expand infrastructure, increase exports, reduce imports and develop high-tech projects that will create jobs.

The Mariel port is only 120 miles from Florida, so if the embargo was ever lifted the port could serve as a low-cost site for companies looking to manufacture and ship their products into the U.S. market.

The U.S. will be allowing foreign vessels to enter the U.S. after engaging in certain trade with Cuba.

Feldman said that companies being able to export construction material for private residences in Cuba and agricultural equipment to small farmers will increase activity at PortMiami.

The new foreign policy on Cuba could "create in some ways an opportunity for not only business folks from around the country but here in South Florida," Feldman said.

The biggest impact item on the list when it comes to exports may be telecommunications, Feldman said. With the Cuban government letting more of its people connect online, U.S. companies will be allowed to export smartphones, software and computers.

"It is tremendous because right now about 5 percent of the Cuban population is on the internet so it is a big question of accessibility," he said. "So it seems as though what we are looking at is to really target this new open regime to help individuals."


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