PORT MANATEE -- Fast ferries carrying passengers and cargo highlighted plans outlined Thursday by a company that hopes to launch service between Port Manatee and Cuba.
Leonard Moecklin, vice president of Havana Ferry Partners LLC, said once legal difficulties posed by the U.S. embargo against Cuba are resolved, his company could operate ferries to the island nation 90 miles south of the United States.
Each Damen Sea Axes ferry boat could carry 150 passengers plus tons of cargo, he said.
"It's time to go to Cuba," he told the Manatee County Port Authority.
Business opportunities would cross many economic sectors, including transportation, construction, tourism, real estate, automotive, food, clothing and medical supplies, he said.
Port Manatee could be a hub for shipping construction materials to Cuba, where the infrastructure of the Communist country needs extensive rebuilding, Moecklin said.
As for the political change needed to accomplish such an enterprise, Moecklin said it's difficult when the two governments are still not speaking with each other.
The United States has maintained an economic and trade embargo against Communist Cuba for 51 years.
Moecklin said change is coming, and Port Manatee could be in the forefront if it prepares now.
Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras said: "While we cannot trade with Cuba today, we need to be in position to trade with Cuba when relations resume. If we wait until then, we'll be behind. We must be ready to run when the gates open."
Moecklin said he has waited two years for a license to carry passengers, which the U.S. government has denied.
Vessels traveling to or from Cuba, including the vessel operator, crew, and passengers, must be authorized by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, according to the U.S. Treasury Department website.
U.S. officials, however, did approve Moecklin's request to carry family gift parcels -- but that proposal still awaits Cuban government approval, he said.
"The opportunities are there for American businesses to come in and make money, and help the Cuban people at the same time," said Moecklin, whose wife is Cuban.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh asked if ordinary Americans could go to Cuba now.
"That's on my 'Bucket List,'" she said. "I want to go to Cuba."
Moecklin said airlines go there now, but such trips require a travel agent, and group travel with some joint purpose such as religious, sports, or cultural aims, with some exceptions.
Commissioner Michael Gallen asked if Port Manatee needs a license to export goods. Moecklin replied he is still awaiting permission to export from the Cuban government.
"It's a big business," Moecklin said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter@sarawrites.