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: infolatam.com
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana in January, 2013. Foto: infolatam.com

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 Cubaencuentro.com.


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

  • June 27, 2013 at 3:34 am
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    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
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    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

  • June 21, 2013 at 6:13 am
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    Please explain how exactly the Mariel port will cut shipping times by one day? For what purpose would a large container ship dock at Mariel? Is Cuba importing vast quantities of industrial and consumer goods? Is Cuba exporting such large quantities of goods that they need a huge port to handle the flow? Is the Cuban import/export business so modern and efficient that international traders will want to send their ships to Mariel?

    The answer to all those questions is “Hell, no!”

  • June 20, 2013 at 11:34 pm
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    The presence of a port is no reason to use it. Cuba offers nothing to shipping. There is no internal market worth docking large ships at and nothing much of value to load and ship on to other markets. The Mariel port is an absurd exercise in a post modern “cargo cult”. The Cuban regime believes that by building something that looks like a port, that the economic activity of a port will follow. But they got it backwards. First create the economic activity, then build a port to exploit it.

    The Mariel Port will go down as the latest folly in a long list of absurd projects cooked up in that overheated brain, from the Ten Million Tonne Harvest to the giant cows.

  • June 19, 2013 at 7:30 pm
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    Hi Moses. Do not remember that event, but would be very happy to repeat it or connect with you through any other way available to both of us. Best wishes.

  • June 19, 2013 at 5:01 pm
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    Let’s just get on with this. Now.

  • June 19, 2013 at 11:15 am
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    I agree with your assessment minus the part where you seem to be saying that the expanded Port will put pressure on “Wall Street” to switch sides and push for changes in US policy towards Cuba. With all due respect, quite the opposite will occur. The US banks and moneyed-types who might even be remotely impacted by Cuban competition would more likely respond by pushing to tighten the screws on the embargo. Their money is tied up in US ports and US shipping concerns. Why would they abandon their interests to help the competition? Rather, the pressure will be on the next Cuban president to mend fences while maintaining control of the people. A task still undone by the brothers Castro. BTW, Mr. Jones, you and I met once in Cuba several years ago. I just came across your business card with the four colorful Caribbean dancers.

  • June 19, 2013 at 5:19 am
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    Even with Mariel renovated, lots of Cuban ports remain badly equipped.
    For years the biggest shipping containers could not be fully loaded when sent to Cuba as the port cranes could not handle them.
    Other ports will be lagging far behind Mariel in facilities.
    Cuba also has no economic “hinterland”, no economic area it serves. It has no incoming trade to speak of in an international context.
    Miami and other US gulf ports have both: access to the US and a large outflow of US goods.
    Mariel has no value for the Mississippi water trade routes for example. Nor for the Midwest train connections. New Orleans will reign there.
    To serve Florida Mariel also is irrelevant.
    Veracruz is a great gateway to Mexico.
    Mariel is no future international hub. Transshipment is a very expensive thing in international transport. Sailing empty also is.

  • June 18, 2013 at 12:54 pm
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    Like so many missed opportunities in the past 50 years, Cuba is beginning to catch-up with its potential and unique geographical location. The port of Mariel in itself, will reduce a day or more travel time on all freighters heading to the United States, which means hundreds of thousands of dollars in freight/time, which will, sooner rather than later, make Wall Street think twice of what is at stake and decide to “release” some obstructionist members of congress.

    Much more can be saved, if a similar deep water shipping port or transfer station would be built on the south coast of Cuba, saving an additional day or two travel time.

    Cuba strategic geographical location may/will impact adversely Miami huge air cargo service, which was relocated 50 years ago from Jacksonville Florida, in order to reduce 1.5-2.0 hours flying time to Latin America.

    Ironically, the vastly underutilized Mariana Grajales airport in Guantanamo, with the longest landing strip in Cuba, near perfect climate, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of vacant acreage, highway, railway and seaport connections and endless fresh water resources, is exactly 1.5 hours closer to Latin America than Miami.

    Like it or not, Geography, human resources and finances, will supersede political antagonism and stupidity.

  • June 18, 2013 at 9:48 am
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    Both Haroldo’s post and the underlying article written by Pedro Monreal seem to promote the idea foisted in the Kevin Costner movie, ‘Field of Dreams’. That is to say, “build it and they will come”. First, it remains to be seen if , even with the multinational Odebrecht as co-venture partner, the Castros can build this expansion on time and on budget. This project is three times the size of any infrastructure project attempted by the Castros in 54 years. Second, there is that whole US embargo thing. The economics of this expanded port depends on access to the US market. As long as Alan Gross rots in the Cuban gulag, no Republican-led Congress will vote to lift the embargo. Third, both Jamaica and Puerto Rico have begun their own deepwater expansion projects. The Caribbean market will become even more competitive for Cuba’s Port of Mariel should the expansion come to pass. While it is fair to see the optimism in this project for Cuba, it is also fair to highlight all of the obstacles a successful project must overcome.

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