Stepping off our plane into Havana, Cuba, last October had all the trappings of a spy mystery. Due to allegations of mysterious “sonic attacks,” that week the U.S. State Department issued heightened travel warnings, announced it planned to remove 60 percent of state department staff from the Havana Embassy, and that it would expel 15 Cuban diplomats from U.S. soil. It was a quite a coincidence that I had just arrived with a group of Clevelanders to discuss port-to-port trade and business development opportunities. I thought to myself, walking into my hotel, “We picked a hell of a week to come to Cuba!”
Despite the subtext of brinksmanship, the week produced an open door from the Cubans to the Port of Cleveland’s delegation. Our travel itinerary had no official diplomatic charge but, given that diplomats were being removed during the days we were there, the week brought an extra responsibility. I will never forget the comment made to us by the Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment who, in the context of the diplomatic expulsion and fearing a setback to normalization and trade, said, “This is a difficult week for Cubans. But your visit gives us hope.” Nor will I forget the comment from the Deputy Minister of Transportation at a press conference when we signed a Memorandum of Understanding to trade when relations normalize, “Cleveland will be remembered for being the first city to sign after the events of this week.”
Delegations of Clevelanders from the Cleveland Foundation to the mayor himself had already made visits to Cuba. Cuban artists were already working and living in residence in Cleveland. The opportunities for business cooperation seemed endless with our bi-national potential for exchange in medical research as well as Cleveland’s well-groomed acumen in technology start-ups and advanced manufacturing. As representatives from the Port of Cleveland, we were there to explore trade partnerships given the cargo container service the Port of Cleveland had launched two years earlier. From a maritime logistics standpoint, we were essentially there to address the question: What if goods moving out of Cleveland, home to the largest eastern U.S. Great Lakes, turned south to the Port of Mariel in Cuba and beyond?
Mariel, Cuba, is home to the sprawling Port of Cuba located 25 miles west of Havana at the northern edge of the Caribbean, due south from Florida. Our group consisted of representatives from Cleveland area companies, including Great Lakes Cheese from Hiram and Rustoleum, a division of RPM International, located in Medina. At the time of our visit, 27 companies from four continents had been given the green light to invest on the 115,000-acre development zone on Mariel, including Mexico’s largest industrial paint company, whose president we had met with the night before.
Why might a U.S. coatings company, for example, be interested in the Port of Mariel? For location and distribution opportunities, business-development incentives and the desire not to lose competitive advantage to other global firms. What about the nation’s largest private label cheese company located in Cleveland, Ohio? Cubans today lack quality agricultural staples, such as chicken, which is primarily sourced today from U.S. southern states, and dairy products. That’s a natural for Midwestern states.
Today’s Port of Mariel differs from everyday perceptions of Cuba. It is privately run by a Singapore-based firm with an English-born CEO. As we looked at distribution routes connecting to the Mariel hub, the Mariel director recognized Cleveland’s location competitive advantage, as the first inland U.S. port from the Atlantic and last port out for containerized goods’ movement up the St. Lawrence Seaway. In a prepared presentation, he’d already mapped out future connections from Mariel to Gulf states, up the Atlantic and to inland locations through the St. Lawrence Seaway with their first stop in Cleveland.
January 2019 will mark 60 years since the Castro led revolution and the decades-long economic embargo that followed. It’s a chill that began to thaw in 2016, but cooled again in 2017. Yet we felt genuine warmth from the Cuban people in October 2017. We could feel it when the Cuban hotel staff turned on the Cleveland Indians and cheered with us, rooting on their own Yandy Díaz, during the American League Division Series against the Yankees. As we boarded the plane for home, reflecting on three days of trade exploration peppered with some unanticipated diplomacy, I was proud of my city and the Port of Cleveland. The Transportation Minister’s words rang in my ears. “Cleveland will be remembered.” Let’s be ready, Cleveland.
Chris Ronayne is president of University Circle Inc. and chairman of the Port of Cleveland. He is the former Cleveland planning director.