Coveting Cuban trade

Cuba is vibrant, but living in Havana is not easy, with rationing, few modern cars and cramped housing. Conditions worsened with the collapse of its former ally, the Soviet Union.

South Carolina's fruitless attempts to open trade with Cuba get a fresh look this month.

The College of Charleston's School of Business and Economics is teaming up with the S.C. World Trade Center to organize a conference examining the communist nation as a potential market for U.S. and state goods.

Though coincidental, the April 17 event follows closely after the Obama administration's slight nod to loosening Cuban trade policy.

This year's omnibus spending bill includes language to allow a general license for commercial sales, rather than on a time-consuming, case-by-case basis. The provisions also strip funding to enforce violations of limited family visits to Cuba or required cash-in-advance payments.

Trade with Cuba is restricted now to agriculture and medicine. Doug Friedman, the College of Charleston's director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, said the conference will target businesses in South Carolina that fit that niche.

"The idea is to push the envelope," he said, explaining that exporters must consider how to broadly interpret the "agricultural goods" label.

"Cuba's a close market and it's a good market because it's a cash market," Friedman said. "They have to pay for everything with cash."

Jack Maybank Jr. might know that better than any other local businessman. Under his late father's leadership, Charleston-based Maybank Shipping's Helen III barge in 2003 became the first U.S.-flagged vessel with an all-American crew to carry goods directly into Havana in more than 40 years.

From then until about two years ago, when Maybank Shipping became Maybank Industries and sold the shipping component, the company made monthly trips to several ports in Cuba.

"There's a great connection between Charleston and Havana," Maybank said. "There is so much business that can be done down there. We are losing out to other states and to other countries."

His company shipped newsprint, poles and foodstuffs to Cuba for years. In its new incarnation, the company is pursuing "agricultural interests," Maybank said, declining to elaborate.

Referring to the state's agricultural sector, he said, "We have a lot of goods here, and that can be (exported) now. In the future they're going to need roads. They're going to need infrastructure. There's really nothing they're not going to need."

The idea of expanding trade ties between Cuba and the Palmetto State has been tried before. In 2004, a small state contingent led by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer flew to Havana and returned with what were supposed to be $10 million in leads, but none of those turned into a deal.

Maria Mendez, who is scheduled to speak at the upcoming conference, serves as director of Latin American trade and development for the Alabama State Port Authority. She also is Cuban-American and sees missed opportunity for her home state and others.

Pointing to the number of discount cars driven on the island nation, she considers the Hyundai, Kia, Nissan and Toyota plants, all relatively close to her port, as potential trade partners. And with Thyssenkrupp Steel and Stainless USA factory in Mobile, Ala., she notes that Cuba is one of the world's top nickel producers.

"That would play very nicely," she said. "For us, there are a lot of other factors besides agriculture that are important to the state."

But agriculture matters. In fact, Cuba is the Port of Alabama's top customer in poultry, according to Mendez.

Sailing to Cuba takes only 32 hours and, the way she sees it, trips could leave weekly if U.S. exporters could offer a variety of goods. She said the new provisions under the Obama administration make no real changes in that vein.

"It's not just the Cuban people who miss out," she said. "But really, a lot of Americans."