Tampa port director on Obama extending Cuban trade embargo

09/15/09 Seán Kinane
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Yesterday President Barack Obama signed an order extending the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba for another year. The director of the Port of Tampa says he is not surprised by the move, but predicts that all Americans will be allowed to travel to the country within a few years.

Obama’s move is largely symbolic because the 1996 Helms-Burton Act keeps sanctions in place regardless of whether Obama signed the extension. But had the president declined to sign the extension it would have been seen as a positive sign by opponents of the Cuban embargo. Despite Obama’s recent moves to relax some restrictions on travel and remittances, Port of Tampa director and CEO Richard Wainio expected the extension.

“His announcement today was not a surprise to us. We did not expect any short-term change in the fundamental aspects of U.S. trade policy with Cuba, essentially the embargo. We expected the embargo to stay in place for at least another year or two as the two governments work through a very complex process that involves many, many other issues besides trade. Trade is just one aspect of this.”

Earlier this month the Treasury Department said that U.S. residents with relatives in Cuba would be allowed to send them unlimited cash remittances and to travel to the country without restrictions. But Americans who don’t have relatives in Cuba are still restricted from traveling to the island nation led by Raul Castro. Port director Richard Wainio expects those restrictions to be lifted, but not immediately.

“We of course are excited about the future opportunities that Cuba holds for the Port of Tampa. We see the Port of Tampa being a major player in any developments that occur in Cuba post-embargo. But I’ve known - despite what you hear publicly perhaps – I’ve known for a long time and have expected for a long time that it would be at least two years or more before we saw a change to the trade policies that would allow full and unimpeded trade to move between our two countries.”

Even though restrictions will be eased gradually, Wainio predicts that some changes could come sooner.

“I expect the first actions that will be taken during this coming year – and I think there will be some positive actions taken – will involve changes that allow people, all Americans perhaps, not just Cubans and family members but all Americans, to travel to Cuba and basically open up the tourism activities in Cuba to U.S. visitors.”

Wainio says that opening up Cuba to American tourists is a prerequisite to trade occurring between the two neighboring countries.

“Because not only is it a first step in opening up the relations with Cuba but it would allow Cuba to start to build some cash flow that they don’t now have. We all know the country is essentially bankrupt. And so even if they were able to trade with us, they don’t have any money to buy much of anything. So if the tourism kicks in, and people are allowed to travel to Cuba, Cuba will start seeing cash flow, and then a year or two from now when trade begins – if it does at that time – they’ll at least have the capability perhaps to finance and purchase a good deal of goods from the United States.”

When trade does open up, Wainio predicts the Port of Tampa will be in a good position to be a leading trading partner with the island nation.

“Oh absolutely, we’re hard at work making sure that we have everything in place when the embargo is lifted. We have the facilities here in Tampa that other ports in the state of Florida don’t have to move everything to and from Cuba from our state.”

In order to end the embargo, the Helms-Burton Act requires action by Congress.

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