In the late 1950s the Port of Palm Beach conducted more trade with Cuba than any other port in the world.
Starting in 1946, the West India Fruit and Steamship Co. transported everything from cars to fertilizer, household goods and food to Cuba from the Riviera Beach-based port, and Cuba sent commodities such as sugar, tomatoes, pineapple, and of course, rum, back on the ships.
The company began the Havana Car Ferry service in 1947. It offered a quick, reliable carload freight service between the port and Cuba, according to “Gateway,” a magazine the port used to publish. The trade ended in August 1961 when the U.S. imposed an embargo on all shipments to Cuba after Fidel Castro took control. Trade with Cuba made up half the port’s business, and when the trade ended, the port almost died. It had to borrow money to make payroll to pay its three employees.
On Friday morning, an important step toward once again ramping up trade with the island nation is scheduled to take place. A delegation from the National Port of Administration of Cuba and Port of Palm Beach officials will meet to sign a memorandum of understanding in the port’s boardroom.
The agreement outlines joint initiatives the two parties will undertake, stating that it is “within their mutual interest to establish an alliance of cooperation aimed at facilitating international trade and generating new business by promoting the all-water route between Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Gulf Coast of the United States through the Port of Palm Beach and the Ports of Cuba.”
Port of Palm Beach executive director Manuel “Manny” Almira, who was born in Cuba, said he has relentlessly pursued the project for the last six years. He has worked with the previous Cuban Ambassador Jorge Alberto Bolaños Suarez and now is working closely with Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez and Rubén Ramos Arrieta, minister counselor at the Economic & Trade Office, Cuban Embassy, who have requested that the Cuban government approve the agreement.
From what Almira has been told, only two other ports in Florida, Port Everglades in Broward County and Port of Tampa, have been selected to sign the agreement. Almira said he believes the accord is one of the many steps that would pave the way for a service or services to be established from the Port of Palm Beach to Cuba.
The Cuban delegation plans to make a presentation about the island nation’s Port Mariel special development zone, inland waterway, seaport capabilities and the foreign trade investment to local business people at the port and throughout Palm Beach County.
During its visit to Palm Beach County that starts on Thursday, the delegation will attend a Northern Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce breakfast, have lunch on the Grand Celebration cruise ship based at the port, make a presentation to the Palm Beach County Commission and attend at event at CityPlace in West Palm Beach. The group will depart for Washington, D.C. on Saturday.
Port Mariel, on Cuba’s northwest coast, is one of three container ports, along with the ones from Santiago and Havana, but Mariel’s is the largest. Mariel opened its container terminal in 2014, and two-thirds of the $900 million project was financed by Brazil.
Mariel is planning its transformation into a major transshipment hub, and becoming the first port of call for “neo-Panamax,” the newer, larger container ships going through the Panama Canal to the U.S. according to published reports.
Some of the joint initiatives planned include marketing, market studies, modernization and improvements and training. Many other things have to occur before trade can begin. Any and all shipping lines expecting to establish service to Cuba must first meet and obtain the license from the Office of Foreign Asset Control, Department of U.S. Treasury.
“Once that license is obtained, then the company will need a license to operate in Cuba. One of the benefits of having an agreement is so that the port can direct businesses to the appropriate transportation ministers in Cuba,” Almira said.
Representatives from the National Port Administration of Cuba scheduled to visit the Port of Palm Beach include:
- Eradis Gonzalez de la Peña, CEO of Almacenes Universales S.A.
- Ernesto Viñas Betancourt, advisor of the Vice Minister of Transportation of Cuba
- Ana Teresa Igarza Martinez, general director of Mariel Special Development Zone
- Tania Vazquez Garcia, official within the Trade Policy Division with North America, Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment
- Rene Rolando Fernandez de Lara Cabazas, director of Inland Waterway and Sea Transport, Cuban Ministry of Transport
- Joe Lago, First Secretary, Embassy of Cuba
- Jose Leonardo Sosa Barrios, Deputy Director, Mariel Container Terminal, Port Mariel
From 1946 until 1961, trade thrived between the Port of Palm Beach and Cuba. The West India Fruit and Streamship Co. operated the ships which transported cargo in rail cars.
Here’s a look at Imports and Exports.
Exports From The Port: fats and oils, brick, lumber, phosphate, eggs, agricultural equipment, horses, mules, cars, trucks, tractors, locomotives, railway equipment, fertilizer, industrial chemicals, canned food, meat, fruits, machinery, drugs, household goods, milk, industrial equipment, soap, tallow, tinplate and packaging material
Imports From Cuba: sugar, bones, rum, fibers, fruit, pineapple, oil, tobacco and vegetables
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, “Florida Havana Railroad Ferry,” Gateway magazine, September/October 1975
Source: Palm Beach Post