The Port of Mobile shares a rich history of trade with Cuba that can date back to, at least, the start of the 20th century. Today, a recent thawing of relations between the island nation and the United States, fostered by a behind-the-scenes effort of the Obama administration, could mean the return of the relationship.

Before an embargo was placed upon the country in 1960 and diplomatic relations froze, Cuba was a large supplier of nickel, sugar and tobacco to the United States. As a deepwater port on the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile benefitted from the historic relationship and at one time, Havana was one of the city’s largest trading partners according to Society Mobile-La Habana President F. Grey Reddit, who represents a sister-cities organization interested in rebuilding the relationship.

The embargo exempted food and humanitarian relief, so even throughout the restrictions Mobile, and Alabama, as the third largest poultry-producing state in the nation, shipped between 32,000 and 40,000 tons of chicken to Cuba annually, Alabama State Port Authority Vice President of Marketing Judy Adams said recently. One ship leaves the port every four to six weeks carrying about 4,000 tons of chicken to Cuba, she said.

Mobile is also home to one of three blast-freeze refrigeration facilities that can efficiently serve the Cuban market because of proximity to the island, Adams added. Furthermore, Mobile claims the largest general cargo port serving the forest products industry. Consequently, the city and its port have a unique opportunity to provide lumber and consumer paper products to Cuba, although the shipments of forest products are less frequent than chicken because of the trade restrictions. In addition, Mobile is also the second-largest steel port in the nation, Adams said.

The port’s existing facilities are among the reasons excitement has been building locally over recent attempts to normalize diplomatic relations with the communist nation.

Neighbors, amigos
In December, President Barack Obama announced his desire for an easing of restrictions on Cuba and the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana. Earlier this month, Obama removed the island just 90 miles off the U.S. coast from the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism, a move applauded by some but criticized by others.

Maria Mendez, the Alabama Port Authority’s director of Latin American Sales and Trade Development, favors the latest move and is an advocate for improved relations with Cuba.

A Cuban native, Mendez fled the island nation with her family in 1961, at the age of 9. In a book called “Cuba: It Matters,” which she co-wrote with Jay Brickman, Mendez writes about her experience traveling to Miami. The book, which is a personal endeavor independent of her work at the port, is due out in early June.

As for a warming of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Mendez said, “It’s about time.”

“You’re looking at an island that’s 90 miles off our shore and they have not been an enemy to the U.S.,” she said. “If you visit Cuba, you will find the people of Cuba are friendly and very open to the U.S.”

Mendez said if anything, the embargo only helped “deliver on a silver platter” a trading partner for enemies of the U.S.

“I mean you’re talking about Russia,” Mendez said. “Immediately Russia went into Cuba when the embargo was placed.”

She added the embargo helped portray Cuba, throughout the Caribbean, as the protagonist in a David-versus-Goliath saga.

As for removing the country from the state sponsor of terrorism list, Mendez supports that move as well. As a Cuban-American, she carries a Cuban passport when she travels back to the country and the terrorist state designation never made any sense to her.

“Now, when you look at other administrations, (North) Korea was taken off the terrorist nation (list), as well as Libya,” she said. “From a Cuban-American standpoint, when you’re traveling with a Cuban passport, which the U.S. government is completely aware (of), does that (classify) you as a terrorist? That, for me, was very hard to swallow because I have just as much love — I mean the U.S. is my country.

“My daughters were born here,” she added. “I’ve lived here all my life. So, I certainly didn’t feel I was a terrorist.”

At the same time, Mendez also recognizes some Cuban-Americans are against lifting the embargo. In 2001, Mendez was instrumental in securing the first shipment of goods from the U.S. to Cuba since the embargo between the two countries was further strengthened in 1962.

Mendez, who was in Jacksonville, Fla. at the time, said she was harassed badly. She said her house was egged and her family was threatened.

“I started getting quite a bit of harassment from a lot of Cuban-Americans,” Mendez said. “I was harassed tremendously because of my outspoken stance on opening up trade with Cuba.”

Soon after, she was contacted by Les Stewart, former vice president of trade and development at the Alabama State Port Authority and its CEO Jimmy Lyons about the job she has now. Mendez calls it “divine intervention.” She’s been in Mobile since 2003.

On the other hand, two other Cuban immigrants with Mobile ties say they don’t trust the regime of Raul Castro, the brother of longtime dictator Fidel, who overthrew a U.S.-backed authoritarian government in 1958. The immigrants, a father and son who spoke on the condition of anonymity through an interpreter representing the Alabama Coalition of Immigrant Justice because of a fear of backlash from the Cuban government, said Obama is making a “deal with the devil” and any agreement between the two countries will only benefit the Castro regime and not the people of Cuba.

“(Obama) is giving him everything in exchange for nothing for the people,” one of the immigrants said. “All (Castro) has done is take advantage of Obama.”

The immigrants said the regime will play nice just for show, but it won’t mean anything.

They believe both Raul and Fidel will have to be out of the picture for any deal between the U.S. and Cuba to bear fruit. But Mendez said who’s in power in Cuba now is irrelevant to the discussion of the lifting of the trade embargo.

“You might not like what happened, but they are the ones that are in power …,” she said. “I mean, we trade with China and we trade with Vietnam, why is Cuba so different?”  

U.S Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) came out recently against removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list. In a press release following his visit to the Summit of the Americas in Panama a couple of weeks ago, where Obama and Raul Castro symbolically shook hands, Byrne said it was premature to remove Cuba from the list.

“After meeting with Cuban dissidents who were beaten, some very seriously, by Cuban embassy personnel … and considering the information linking Cuba with North Korea and inappropriate arms sales, I have a hard time understanding how the president can make this decision,” he wrote.

In an unrelated February interview with Lagniappe, Byrne said he thought the U.S. should move toward normalizing relations with Cuba, but that he disagreed with the way Obama was handling it. He reiterated those sentiments in the statement earlier this month.

“For all the right reasons, the president wants to normalize relations with Cuba,” he wrote. “I agree with him that we should have that as our goal. Unfortunately, the Cuban leadership doesn’t want to change its inappropriate behavior and activities as part of the process of normalization.”

The future of the embargo
With recent actions, the U.S. can now ship agricultural equipment and construction materials to Cuba, but that’s a far cry from what will be allowed if the embargo on trade currently placed on Cuba is totally lifted by an act of Congress.

During a February visit to Mobile, retired Cuban diplomat and professor Dr. Carlos Alzugaray said a reversal of policy in regard to the embargo would be tough because there are senior members of Congress, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, opposed to lifting the embargo. He said he believes they are not in the majority, but that there is enough opposition and political pressure to keep the status quo in place. At the same time, he admitted there is positive momentum for a change in policy from advocates, despite the obvious roadblocks.

“I think political obstacles have always been overestimated and now the ball is moving,” he said. “So, once the ball starts moving and some important economic interests start to benefit from the connection with Cuba, we might see some people changing sides and saying ‘let’s do it.’”

At the Port, Lyons said he believes the momentum, which began late last year, will continue into the future, albeit slowly. He referenced “vehement opposition” to the lifting of the embargo, but said public opinion was changing. He said it would come in steps, starting with the removal of Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list, but progressing with more formal agreements between the two countries.

“If we begin to take these steps I mentioned earlier, that’s going to blunt some of this vehement opposition,” Lyons said. “It’s going to blunt some of the opposition and it’s going to help lead us toward a point where we can — I think if you got a heads-up vote today in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, I think the vote would be to lift the embargo, but procedurally you can’t do that.”

Potential benefits
Although its impact on the state is hard to gauge, Lyons said lifting the embargo would mean even more U.S. goods would travel through Mobile’s port to Cuba.

“Right now our foreign exchange is tight in Cuba because of the embargo and the healthier the island becomes financially, the more goods they are able to buy. The more goods they are able to buy, the more we’re able to potentially ship through the port,” he said.

Mobile’s proximity to the ports of Havana and Mariel make it ideally suited for trade when and if the embargo is lifted, Lyons said, and more frequent departures from the port to the island would be good.

“We’d love to have, at least, a weekly service down there,” he said. “Right now, it’s just a spot ship comes in here and takes in 4,000 pounds of chicken and goes down and maybe six weeks or eight weeks later another ship.”

But beyond poultry, Mobile’s port could help satisfy Cuba’s need for improvements to its railroad infrastructure, Lyons said, which is badly in need of upgrades.

“They’ve done some upgrades around the port of Mariel, which was financed by the Brazilian government, but it’s a huge port development project — a billion dollar project that was done with the assistance of the Brazilian government,” he said. “You’ve got to have railroads to connect that port to other parts of the country. So, you have a need there for rails and for crossties and switches and things like that.”

Lyons also mentioned a demand in Cuba for new and used locomotives. There would also be an opportunity, as U.S. tourism grows, for hotel chains like Marriott and others. In that case, there may be an opportunity for a cruise ship to service a Mobile-to-Havana route.

But in a throwback to their historical relationship, it would be more likely the port would benefit from some of the items it has traditionally traded with Cuba, like nickel.

“Cuba has big nickel deposits and we have demand for nickel right here in the Mobile area, with the (Calvert) stainless steel plant because there’s nickel in their process,” Lyons said. “So, there are things that could happen to improve the Cuban economy and our health as a port.”

Alzugaray suggested the telecommunications industry would benefit from an end to the embargo as well.

More Mobile-Cuba connections
Incidentally, Mobile has the distinction of indirectly introducing the sport of baseball to Cuba in the late 1800s. In research for a book he’s writing on the history of Spring Hill College, the Rev. Christopher Viscardi came across the names of three Cuban-born students who were enrolled in 1860.

He said through research with the help of a Cuban historian, he’s been able to confirm that brothers Ernesto and Nemesio Guillo Romanguere and a friend named Henry Porto brought a ball and bat to the island nation after leaving the college following the Civil War. Viscardi said Nemesio founded a baseball club in Cuba in 1868 and the group began organizing leagues and championships. He said baseball in the country grew out of their efforts.

Viscardi said Spring Hill College had a large number of Cuban students before the turn of the 20th century because the school would recruit on the island and did so until about 1900. It was successful, he said, because the college had more Cuban students than students from Alabama in 1866 and 1867, because of economic conditions following the Civil War.

In the early 1990s, Mobile was the first U.S. city to become a sister city with Havana following the revolution. The sister cities agreement spawned the La Habana-La Mobile Society, Reddit said.

The group is dedicated to promoting the artistic and cultural ties between Havana and Mobile. Reddit said the group works to introduce Mobile to the culture of Havana and Cuba to the people of Mobile. The group is about 30 members strong and holds monthly meetings. Mendez is a member of the society’s board of directors.