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Diplomatic delight and commercial caution

As Caribbean leaders weigh up effects of US-Cuba detente

December’s historic announcement that the United States and Cuba were taking steps to normalize relations was warmly welcomed across the Caribbean and has profound and positive implications for the region.

It’s still too early to appreciate the full implications of the Obama-Castro agreement and there are many loose ends to be tied. Expect some bumps along the way as these two great nations work out how best to repair the damage caused by over 50 years of animosity.

How the US-Cuba rapprochement will affect the region’s maritime and tourism sectors – especially in regard to cruise shipping – it is too early to say.

For the time being, carriers operating out of south Florida are likely to be the first to adjust to changing circumstances.

Role of Mariel

There is also the question of what role Cuba’s recently enlarged and refurbished port of Mariel – run by Singapore’s Global Ports Management – might play in an increasingly crowded container transshipment market post 2015 and following the enlargement of the Panama Canal.

In the longer term, it will be interesting to see how Cuba shapes up as a cruise destination. It already is, of course. Official sources in Havana indicated that around 200 cruise ship calls were scheduled for winter season 2014-15. So, even with the US ban on its nationals visiting the island for the purpose of tourism, Cuba is popular.

But the prospect of cruise ships calling at Havana from Miami, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral is something else. Let’s not forget, though, that President Obama’s announcement allows for a greater number of US citizens to travel to Cuba; but, for the time being this relaxation excludes tourism.


What the politicians say

President Obama said: “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, said the Government of Jamaica enthusiastically welcomed the joint announcement in Washington and Havana.

Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, said it was an event of “earth-shattering proportions”.

According to Dr Denzil Douglas, Prime Minister of St Kitts and Nevis, “the half-century-old policy of the US toward Cuba advanced the interests of neither the United States nor those of the Cuban people”.

Grenada’s Prime Minister, Dr Keith Mitchell, said: “Today is a historic day in the life of the Cuban people. Today, the US has answered the call of humanity. Today, the US has finally heard what Caribbean leaders have always said, and what has been proven: their decades-long policy of isolationism of Cuba has not worked. It is way past time to remove the embargo. It is the progressive, wise and right thing to do.”

Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, welcomed the resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba and said that, over the years, Port of Spain had called for an end to the trade embargo.

The Government of Guyana welcomed the decision, which it described as “a progressive step towards the development of constructive relations between the US and Cuba which will redound to the benefit of these two countries and the hemisphere as a whole.”

Meanwhile, the Guyana-based Caricom Secretariat said it welcomed the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba and the move towards the re-establishment of diplomatic ties. Caricom’s Dominican Secretary, General Irwin LaRocque, said: “Caricom has long been an advocate for the normalization of these relations and has raised the issue repeatedly in its interaction with both parties.”

Outlook for cruise and tourism

The Jamaica Gleaner: “What this means is that while US tourism (or more precisely the number of non-Cuban-American US visitors travelling to Cuba) will remain constrained for the time being, there could be a quite sudden opening in between two and four years’ time, but only if that is what Cuba wants.”

“Cuba is poised to become the next hot spot destination which will attract tourists who now travel to Puerto Rico,” said Matt Dalton, chief executive, and Tamara Lowin, director of research, at New York-based firm White Plains.

President Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, said: “We firmly believe that allowing increased travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba will allow the US to better advance our interests and improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.”

What liner operators say

Regional liner operators had their own views on the US-Cuba detente.

Crowley Maritime’s Jay Brickman cautioned: “It’s an extraordinarily important first step, but it really is just a first step. The embargo is still there. That continues to restrict a lot of things that can be done.”

Roland Malins-Smith of Sea Freight put it this way: “We don’t think that the trade will grow beyond the existing volume until Congress takes steps to ease the embargo. Non-US business with Cuba is also off limits for us until the embargo is removed. The recent policy pronouncement is in our opinion necessary but not sufficient to change the fundamentals for us.”

Strange but true

The first cargo ship to operate directly between the US and Cuba since 1961 berthed in Havana in July 2012 – long before last December’s announcement – carrying agricultural products.