The Mississippi ports of Gulfport and Pascagoula signed agreements with Cuba on February 20 with an eye on potential future business, despite President Donald Trump’s threat to scrap improved relations if he doesn’t get “a better deal” from Cuban President Raul Castro.
Republican U.S. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi signed agreements with the island nation at a business forum that aimed to explore business opportunities between ports in Mississippi and Cuba because of their geographical proximity.
Senator Cochran was part of a congressional delegation that arrived on the island on February 19 for a three-day visit to discuss relations and business opportunities. The delegation was led by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who played a big role in former President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.
Port authorities along the southern coast strongly support increased trade and travel with the island. A few have shown interest in using the town of Mariel, located in the Artimisa Province west of Havana, as a shipment hub. Alabama, Louisiana, and Virginia have also signed agreements similar to Mississippi’s.
The Port of Palm Beach and Port Everglades in Florida also wanted to sign memorandums of understandings with the Cuban government to seek out future business possibilities. However, port authorities balked after Governor Rick Scott threatened to cut state funds from ports that signed agreements with Cuba.
Governor Scott wrote a series of Twitter posts saying he would ask lawmakers to restrict funds for infrastructure improvements from Florida ports that wanted to sign agreements with Cuba. According to reports, Governor Scott doesn’t think Florida’s ports should be trading with what he called the “Cuban dictatorship,” and that “we cannot condone Raul Castro’s oppressive behavior.”
The governor’s provision will not affect port users and private companies like cruise lines and shipping businesses. Trade between Florida and Cuba has been growing steadily since Obama restored diplomatic ties with communist nation in 2015. Sources say Cuba’s revenue from trade with Florida totaled almost $65 million in 2016.
Statistics from the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council project that business between the U.S. and Cuba will continue to grow in the coming months. Major cruise lines alone are expected to add at least $5 million to the Cuban economy this year once they start sailing from Port Tampa Bay to Havana. Royal Caribbean Cruises has scheduled 10 cruises to the island and Carnival announced 12 cruises to Havana in 2017 and 2018.
Thanks to some rule changes in 2016, Cuba can now legally send imports to Florida for the first time in five decades. This change is expected to further boost the island’s economy. Just last month, Cuba’s first import in over 50 years (two containers of artisan coal) arrived at Port Everglades.
Cuba watchers are still wary and are looking closely to see how the fragile relations between the two countries will fare under the Trump administration. President Trump could backtrack Obama’s initiatives in an attempt to squeeze a better deal from the Cuban government.