BY KELLY ROWLEY—In 1980, Mariel Harbor provided the departure point for 125,000 Cuban refugees fleeing Cuba for the United States. Thirty four years later, the seaside town, located 25 miles west of Havana, no longer serves as a symbol of refuge, but rather as a symbol of hope.
Such newfound hope stems from an announcement made on January 27, when Cuban President Raúl Castro stood alongside Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to unveil a $957 million project that would turn Mariel into a mega-port. During the announcement, President Castro referred to the plan as a “transcendent project for the national economy.” In addition to replacing Havana as Cuba’s most profitable cargo port, the plan seeks to create a “special development zone,” where businesses will benefit from tax breaks and other incentives as ways of attracting international companies to Cuba. Cuba’s foreign trade and investment minister lauded the special development zone for its “ability to create a special climate where foreign capital is going to have better conditions than in the rest of the country.” The project, financed primarily by a loan from Brazil, is aimed at increasing exports, creating jobs, and promoting high technology and local development.
Following announcement of the plan, a South Florida ship sailed into Mariel’s port, becoming the first ship to arrive at its docks since the project’s announcement. The ship, carrying frozen chicken, was able to dock in Cuba as a result of a 2000 amendment to U.S. sanctions allowing ships carrying U.S. food exports to flow into the country. The ship did not go unnoticed, with analysts remarking that “the presence of the U.S. line at Mariel’s high-profile début—when the presidents of Brazil, Venezuela, and other Latin American nations were on hand for a regional conference—signals that Havana is not only open for business, but open for business with the United States.” One Brazilian government official predicted that “the embargo will not last forever, and when it falls, Cuba will be strategic for Brazilian companies because of its geographic position.”
Not everyone views the project with such optimism, however. Professor Ted Henken cautions that “the long-term viability of Mariel depends on a change in U.S. policy.” Henken regards the U.S. ship’s presence in Mariel as a sign that Cuba is willing to do business with the United States, but he also warns that the United States is not yet ready to do business with Cuba. Similarly, one critic has opined that “as it stands, international investors will have to be persuaded to choose Cuba over nearby competitors. The likes of Panama, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic have already established FTZs (free trade zones) in their territories.” Whether or not international investors and the United States decide to do business with Cuba, the country has taken a promising step, and the port remains “open for business.”