Corpus Christi Caller-Times
June 16, 2004

Selling staples to Cuba

Local port teaches businesses the ropes

By Alison Beshur Caller-Times

Within the next few months, Corpus Christi businessman Rob Douglas plans to ship beef and possibly other meat products to Cuba.

Douglas has started the licensing process and is mapping out the logistics for shipping to the Caribbean Island about 93 miles south of Key West.

 "It's just another market to take advantage of or to trade with," said Douglas, traffic manager for Northern Beef Industries in Corpus Christi. "We just have to put the whole package together."

Douglas and more than two dozen business owners, agricultural experts and trade development specialists attended a conference Tuesday on doing business with Cuba. The Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance sponsored the conference, which was held at the Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz International _Center.

Thomas Moore, a trade development representative for the Port of Corpus Christi, said attendees showed serious interest in trading with Cuba, a nation with more than 11 million residents.

"They want to get after it," Moore said.

Moore said the port intends to promote trade with Cuba as part of an effort to diversify exports.

Last year, more than 52,000 tons of wheat, sorghum and beans were shipped out of the port to Cuba. To date, those exports have generated about $2,740 in revenues for the Port of Corpus Christi.

A second shipment with 5,000 tons of beans and donated medical supplies was expected to leave this area's port for Cuba late Tuesday.

About a year ago, Port Commission Chairman Ruben Bonilla signed an agreement with representatives from Alimport, Cuba's government-run food-import agency.

In 2003, Cuba imported about $250 million of agricultural products and local agriculture experts estimate about 20 percent of those products could come from Texas.

At Tuesday's conference, Cynthia Thomas, president of the Dallas-based Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance, provided a step-by-step outline for exporting agricultural goods to Cuba under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

That act re-authorized regulations under the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, which also regulates the shipments of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, supplies and instruments to Cuba.

The process can be cumbersome, said Thomas, who also serves as president of Dallas-based TriDimension Strategies, a small consulting firm representing companies exporting to Cuba.

Because of the decades-old U.S. embargo, citizens of this country are not allowed to travel to Cuba as vacationers.

"There are very serious consequences if you mess up," Thomas said, noting fines can reach $10,000 and can include prison time.

Although export possibilities exist, entrepreneurs should be realistic in their expectations, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council .in New York.

About 1.9 million foreign tourists traveled to Cuba last year. Although that resulted in an economic impact of $2 billion, Cuba only retained a fraction of those funds, Kavulich said.

Under current trade regulations, Cuba must pay U.S. exporters cash for its purchases. Some of the funds used to buy goods from this country could pay down Cuba's $12.1 billion deficit to other trading partners, Kavulich said.

"There's much overselling of Cuba, because of political and economic agendas in the U.S.," said Kavulich, who was not at the conference. "Cuba will unlikely live up to the exaggeration."