Port Manatee

Speaking in Bradenton, Cuban diplomat sees local trade, travel coming

BRADENTON -- Cuba's top diplomat in the United States believes the only things standing in the way of a trade and business relationship with Florida are regulations, a half-century-old trade embargo and the will in Congress to normalize relations with his country.

His evidence? While touring Manatee County's port Tuesday and then at a speaking engagement in Bradenton, José Ramón Cabañas, head of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., learned that locals are ready to travel to Cuba, sell things to Cuba and even establish factories and farms in the island nation.

Cabañas' local appearance made good on his previous intent to visit in February. Invited by Havanna

Ferries CEO Jorge Fernandez, the diplomat spent 90 minutes at the port, then another two hours at a luncheon put on in his honor by the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.

His presence seemed to solidify a promise by the ferry company to base future passenger service to the Cuban port of Mariel. It may also have added credence to the Port Manatee's push to prepare for a day when trade resumes between the U.S. and Cuba.

This visit, said port director Carlos Buqueras, came as the port gears up to run cargo and passengers to the communist nation. That includes becoming a base of operations for Havana Ferries.

"What we have now is a high level of recognition in Florida for being a port that is ideally poised to trade with Cuba under a resumption of trade scenario," Buqueras said. "On the west coast, it remains that Manatee is the best option and the closest port to Mariel."

Cabañas garnered his biggest audience of the day at the luncheon event at Renaissance on 9th in Bradenton. Wading into a crowd of suits and ties wearing a guayabera shirt after arriving in a compact Chevrolet, the career diplomat was mobbed by English- and Spanish-speaking business people seeking to have a few words with him.

After lunch, 140 event guests listened as Cabañas talked about the opportunities he sees coming since President Barak Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Characterizing his nation's economy as being primarily tourism and service oriented, he said Cuba stands to benefit from U.S. investment in trade and industrial ventures in that country.

He was also as realistic as he was hopeful, cautioning his audience to be patient with a normalization process that still requires Congressional blessing.

"The thing is you have a lot of limits in the United States to have normal trade with Cuba, and I hope those limits will be removed soon," he said.

One subject Cabañas addressed several times was U.S. tourist travel to Cuba. At present, a dozen categories of U.S. travelers are allowed to fly to Cuba. None of those categories account for tourism. After not-so-subtly hinting that an existing "research" travel category could apply to "about anything," Cabañas said one of the biggest bars to unrestricted tourism to the island is Cuba's lack of hotel rooms.

Jeff Greenacre, CEO of Tampa-based Greenacre Properties, voiced a cultural concern. He asked Cabañas whether he felt an influx of U.S. citizens would overwhelm the Cuban people.

Cabañas said he doesn't believe that is a risk.

"We have a very strong culture," he said.

After Cabañas spoke, Manatee Chamber President Bob Bartz said he believes the meeting en masse of the two nations' cultures could start soon.

"From the buzz after this meeting we're starting to hear a lot of people have either great interest in trips to Cuba, investments, etcetera," Bartz said.

The chamber event was not Cabañas' final stop of the day. After the event, he traveled to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota to learn about research programs that could be of importance to Cuba.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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