Cuba’s first U.S.-bound container shipment arrives

Cuban-origin cargo marks the beginning of what’s expected to be a promising, although modest, U.S. trade.

By: Chris Gillis
Photo: Juerg Schreiter/Shutterstock
   What was the first commercial containerized shipment to arrive in the United States from U.S. embargo-free Cuba?
   Sugar? Rum? Cigars? No, just artisanal charcoal. Nothing spectacular on the face of it, but this Cuban-origin shipment marks the beginning of what’s expected to be a promising, although modest, new trade for U.S. commercial importers and exporters. 
   Under direction from President Obama, the United States began to normal relations with Cuba in late 2014, and has since gradually opened trade and travel with the Caribbean island nation. Changes in U.S.-Cuba policy have included allowing certain consumer products exported or imported from Cuba, and easing restrictions on insurance, travel, telecommunications and financial services.
   In July 2015, the United States and Cuba agreed to establish embassies in their respective capitals, and then the U.S. State Department in April 2016 updated its list of goods produced by independent Cuban entrepreneurs that can be imported into the United States.
   Also last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved six domestic airlines to begin scheduled flights between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis/St. Paul and Cuba. Some of these services have already started.
   The official U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, in place since 1960, however, can only be fully lifted by an act of Congress, and the current legislature has shown little enthusiasm for such a measure.
   The containerload of artisanal charcoal arrived on Tuesday in Florida’s Port Everglades on board the Crowley vessel K Storm.
   Crowley has long been on the forefront of serving the Cuban market. For the past 15 years, it has handled a variety of cargoes allowed under the U.S. export control regulations. 
   Crowley became the first U.S. ocean carrier to obtain a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to provide regularly scheduled services for licensed cargoes from the United States to Cuba. 
   The carrier started its Cuba service in December 2001, becoming the first U.S. carrier to re-enter Cuba in nearly 40 years. It has kept a regularly scheduled service to the island nation ever since, currently operating from Port Everglades, said Jay Brickman, Crowley’s vice president of Cuba and government services.
   Via the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, OFAC began licensing the transport of agricultural commodities, medicine, medical devices or other products directly from the United States to Cuba. Exporters of these goods must also obtain licenses from the Commerce Department to ship them to Cuba. 
   “In addition to transporting frozen poultry and a variety of other foodstuffs to the island, Crowley has safely and reliably shipped equipment for major events and projects, such as sporting events and concerts,” Brickman said.
   However, the increase in trade between the United States and Cuba even with the various embargo restrictions lifted so far will be modest at best for the foreseeable future, according to an April 2016 report by the federal factfinding agency, the U.S. International Trade Commission. 
   “Even if U.S. restrictions are lifted, Cuban nontariff measures, institutional and infrastructural factors, and other barriers, including those associated with a non-market, state-controlled economy, still exist and may affect the ability of foreign partners to trade with or invest in the country,” the ITC said.
   According to the ITC, total Cuban imports of goods reached $9.3 billion in 2014, while imports of services amounted to $2.5 billion. “Before initial U.S. restrictions were implemented in 1960, Cuba was a major U.S. trading partner, ranking as the seventh-largest U.S. export market. In 2014, however, it ranked as the 125th-largest U.S. market, with U.S. exports to Cuba totaling just $299 million,” the commission said.
   Despite the Cold War-era restrictions, some trade to Cuba, mostly agricultural based, was permitted over the years. The ITC noted while Cuban imports from the United States reached a record $712 million in 2008, they fell to $180 million by 2014.
  The commission's report noted that U.S. exports of selected agricultural and manufactured goods could increase in the medium term by about $1.4 billion from a base year (2010-2013) of $400.8 million to about $1.8 billion.
   “If U.S. restrictions were removed and Cuban import barriers were reduced to the level of the calculated average for developing countries, the quantitative analysis suggests that U.S. exports of selected agricultural and manufactured goods could increase by an additional $442 million, to a total of about $2.2 billion,” the ITC said.