After 50+ Years, Shipping Resumes from U.S. to Cuba / Yoani Sánchez

Ana Cecilia enters sailing into the Port of Havana. Source: El Pais / EFE

Just before dawn this Friday morning, the 300-foot long ship Ana Cecilia docked at the Port of Havana with an unusual cargo. This is the first maritime shipping direct from the United States to Cuba in more than 50 years. The boat set sail last Wednesday and arrived in Cuba today, 24 hours later than planned due to difficulties with the administrative paperwork needed to enter Havana harbor.

Its cargo consists mainly of staples such as food, medicine and personal hygiene products, sent from exiled Cubans to their families on the Island. The ship was received by the port authorities and attracted curious looks from passersby, surprised by the novelty. It is, undoubtedly, an unprecedented event since the 1961 establishment of the U.S. embargo toward the largest of the Antilles.

To date, it has only been possible to send agricultural products through American companies, according to a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000. A measure that has permitted – for more than a decade – the Cuban government to buy large quantities of grain, frozen chicken and other food products from our northern neighbor.

The Ana Cecilia sailed under a Bolivian flag with 9 sailors, also Bolivian. It was managed by the International Port Corporation (IPC), founded in 2008 and based in Florida. The IPC got a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Commerce Department. This permit is on the list of relaxations put in place by the Obama administration. Since his arrival the White House, the current president has promoted cultural and academic exchanges, expanded the amount of remittances sent by Cuban Americans, and increased the number of trips they can make to the Island.

The organizers of the Ana Cecilia hope to repeat the same trip at least once a week, starting now. The cost per pound of goods sent by this route is $5.99, which is significantly less than current prices. Cuban exiles will be able to send all kinds of humanitarian goods: clothing, food, furniture and household products, as well as construction materials, electrical generators and vehicle parts. Some suggest that this may be the first step to allow Cuban Americans to also travel from Florida to Cuba by boat, something not permitted today.

Until today, these goods had to travel through third countries, which made it much more expensive and slower. Before the Ana Cecilia, shipments of this type could take a month or two to reach Cuban territory, and under these conditions the risk of loss or damage to the merchandise was very high.

Now, recipients will be able to pick up their packages at the Port of Havana, or wait for them to be delivered to their homes. For residents outside the capital, the deliveries will take two additional weeks. The Cuban company responsible for home deliveries will be CubaPack, which is authorized by Cuban Customs for this purpose.

Manolo, a fisherman who observed the arrival of the Ana Cecilia from the wall of the Malecon, commented to El Pais newspaper, “Now my brother in Hialeah can send me parts for my old Chevrolet.” Meanwhile, a couple of young men took photos of themselves standing in front of the ship’s enormous blue structure.

“This is a historic day,” one of them told the reporter, as he pointed to the American flag bandana on his head. Others interviewed expressed their satisfaction with the new direct shipping line established between the two shores and recommended, “improving the security and controls at the port to protect the shipments.” None of those consulted criticized the arrival of the boat, nor were there any anti-imperialist slogans heard this Friday morning in the immediate environs.

However, the journey of the Ana Cecilia to the Island has not been without controversy. During the preparations for its departure it was strongly criticized by Cuban born Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lethinen, who asserts that this ship is in violation of the law. In a letter to the IPC, Ros-Lethinen said that the company is violating the Helms-Burton law, which requires all ships that travel to Cuba to wait 180 days before they can again touch American shores. The directors of the International Port Corporation assert that the Ana Cecilia has all the required permissions and so have decided to ignore the Congresswoman’s warning.

The paradox in this situation is that the Cuban government just established new duties on food imports. Until June 18 it was possible for a package of this type to enter the country free of taxes, which contributed greatly to supporting new private restaurants and cafes. Self-employed workers benefitted in recent months from the massive influx of spices, grains and other culinary products, but the State hard currency stores suffered a drop in sales.

As of September 3, there will also be a significant increase on duties on non-commercial items, among them clothing, small appliances and home furnishing. There is speculation that the government of Raúl Castro has taken these measures to encourage consumption of domestic products, and also to favor the influx of cash remittances over the sending of packages. However, the negative effect on the family budget will be felt, especially among those who depend on supplies coming from a nation which, according to official propaganda, continues to be “the enemy.”

13 JULY 2012