Cuba’s Mariel Port: New Opportunities for the Island

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Work underway at the port of Mariel, located 30 miles west of Havana.  Photo: Raquel Perez
Work underway at the port of Mariel, located 30 miles west of Havana. File Photo by Raquel Perez.

HAVANA TIMES — Pedro Monreal is the type of analyst who takes his time to join debates in Cuba and who always brings something worthwhile to the table. He has done this again with his most recent article, “The Post-Panama Era: New Opportunities for Cuba”, published in issue 232 of Cuba’s Espacio Laical journal last May.

The article, which I suggest everyone read, discusses how Cuba, for the first time in a very long time, is now in a position to carve out a good slice of the global market for itself, availing itself of the Mariel Port, an area for the transshipment and distribution of goods located at a dynamic commercial passage that can connect the easternmost end of the island with the coasts of the United States, Europe and South America.

It is indeed a unique opportunity. The broadening of the Panama Canal, aimed at allowing the passage of larger vessels with cargos up to three times larger than was hitherto possible, has made the Caribbean a point of commercial confluence and a location that has not enjoyed as much activity since the time of trade with the West Indies.

However, many ports in the Caribbean (such as those in Kingston, Ponce, Santo Domingo’s Punta Caucedo, Barbados’ Freeport and Cuba’s Mariel), as well as in Central America and the eastern coast of the United States, are competing for this opportunity.

For Cuba – particularly for Havana and its commercially dynamic coastline, which stretches from Mariel to the Varadero-Cardenas region – this could mean a qualitative leap forward, not only economically, but politically as well. The reason is that such a commercial route could become an incentive for the gradual normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.

One need not fully agree with Monreal to appreciate the insightful nature of this argument, for, if there is anything we can be sure of, it is the fact that the only way Cuba will ever secure the indispensible normalization of its relations with the United States is by offering the latter a sufficiently attractive economic incentive.

In other words, by offering tangible benefits in exchange for measures that will inevitably spell a political cost. The oil card, which Cuba’s leadership thought would be the magic key to those doors with rusted hinges, proved to be non-existent. The question now, evidently, is whether this new commercial relationship will suffice, if the offer that Cuba’s Mariel Port represents can decisively shift the geopolitical balance.

El expresidente brasileño Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva con el presidente cubano, Raúl Castro, en La Habana (Cuba).  Foto:
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana in January, 2013. Foto:

There is one, vital point Monreal fails to address: the consensus of Cuba’s political elite. Though it is true that, in terms of magnitude, this commercial opportunity could be compared to the events surrounding the Haitian Revolution of 1792, it is also true that, at the time, the country was ruled by a colonial elite with a very clear conception of what society should be like, and that this society began to be constructed before the slave revolt of Saint Domingue.

If one studies the history of Cuba’s western region (whose commercial center was the city of Havana), one invariably comes across episodes in which its different communities accomplished great feats to secure their insertion in the global economy.

One such feat was achieved in the 16th century, when these industrious settlements were capable of shouldering the burden of supplying the country’s marine fleets, whose crews often outnumbered the local populations, with provisions. The other, mentioned by Monreal, took place in the 18th century, when these same settlements took the island’s technological and cultural development to new heights, albeit at the expense of intense slave labor.

Today, such a consensus no longer exists, I’m afraid. At base, Cuba’s political elite agrees that it must remain in power, but not on what it must do to overcome the obstinate stagnation the country endures or about how to stop its attendant demographic hemorrhaging.

It goes without saying that such a consensus within the Cuban leadership would also be of the essence for a broader social consensus, needed to undertake that process of national reconstruction we are not even able to imagine today.

That Cuba’s political elite is divided on many issues is a fact one can appreciate even in the most banal details of the slow, dispirited reform process which Raul Castro has likened to the “slow but sure” gait of a turtle.

I feel that looking to Cuba’s port of Mariel as an opportunity, as Monreal does, is to regard the future with far more conviction and optimism than is afforded by that rather inarticulate and contradictory list of wishes we have agreed to call Cuba’s “new guidelines.”

(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original posted by

10 thoughts on “Cuba’s Mariel Port: New Opportunities for the Island

  • June 27, 2013 at 3:34 am

    It’s Brazil and they provided $900,000,000.00. There is no “walmart” in the equation because there is no U.S. in the equation.

  • June 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    I think the backers of the new port are Chinese companies and the government. China is putting up about 7 Billion dollars for the facility. Walmart is in charge of distribution of goods and there will be a new canal thru Nicaruaga in the near future ( 30 – 40 billion dollars ). Castro boys have little to do with the outcome.
    Chuck Bailey

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *