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Cuba’s Closer Than Canada

The freighter Express passes the lighthouse in the Bay of Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001. The Express brought 500 tons of frozen chicken parts valued at USD $300,000 in the first U.S. commercial food shipment to be purchased by Cuba in nearly 40 years.

The freighter Express passes the lighthouse in the Bay of Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001. The Express brought 500 tons of frozen chicken parts valued at USD $300,000 in the first U.S. commercial food shipment to be purchased by Cuba in nearly 40 years.

AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera

Canada was Alabama’s biggest export partner in 2013, the most recent data available, buying $4.3 billion in total merchandise, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Our biggest exports that year were transportation equipment, followed by chemicals, primary metal manufactures, mineral/ores and machinery, except electrical.

Mobile to Montreal amounts to about 1,550 miles. What might it be like to have a restrictions-free trading partner hungry for all manner of goods just 90 miles south of Key West?

In a way, we already know. Cuba accounted for a quarter of Alabama agricultural export revenue in 2006, according to the Southern Economics and Business Journal. A 2010 article entitled “The Cuban Embargo and Southeastern Agricultural Exports” noted that with Mobile being less than two days from Havana by ship, Alabama’s Port City was the dominant port for U.S./Cuban trade prior to the embargo.

While it would take an act of Congress to completely lift the embargo, President Barack Obama’s easing of travel and commerce restrictions is thought to be a key first step. Even before it happened, shiploads of chicken left Mobile for Cuba on a regular basis, purchased through agents in third-party deals to allow for the political rift. 

Could new competition threaten Mobile’s chicken ships? Not likely, according to James Lyons, director of the Alabama State Port Authority in Mobile. Lyons told the Anniston Star in December that his port’s extensive refrigerated warehouses are key to the shipments. Florida and Texas don’t have the capacity and the closest other port with such refrigeration is New Orleans. 

Cuba also is considered ripe for purchases of farming equipment, livestock and other agricultural products. A potential roadblock might be Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a son of Cuban immigrants and potential 2016 presidential candidate. But many onlookers agree that the Cuban Embargo has probably outlived its usefulness, providing that the U.S. can negotiate for some positive changes from its nearby neighbor.

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