Amid the heated disagreements spawned by President Barack Obama’s decision last week to chip away at the 54-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, one thing is indisputable: U.S. exports to Cuba are at the lowest level in a decade.
Another indisputable fact: Miami-Dade County, ground zero for opposition to Obama’s announcement, is not currently important to Cuba trade. But that could change, if telecommunications equipment eventually ships to the island nation, as Obama’s announcement would facilitate.
While Miami International Airport is not a leading exporter of infrastructure for the cellular telecommunications industry — likely a growth area on the island — it is the top-ranked player nationally for other related high-tech exports, including computers, printers and cell phones. The infrastructure and know-how is in place in Miami-Dade, and the Doral area is home to Latin America headquarters for several of the world’s largest cellphone distributors as well as other technology products.
Across the county line in Broward, the Hollywood area is where many of the large underground cables connecting the United States and Latin America for Internet and telecommunications services come ashore. But because of the embargo, when those cables were laid on the ocean floor, they bypassed Cuba. So the island nation is generally not privy to the dizzying amount of information most of the rest of the world enjoys on their computers and smart phones — at least not yet.
Just up the road from Hollywood is Port Everglades, the nation’s second-ranked port for U.S. exports to Cuba.
It is joined by Florida’s Port of Jacksonville; Louisiana’s ports in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Gramercy; Georgia’s port in Brunswick, which ranks No.1; Virginia’s port at Newport News; Mississippi’s port in Pascagoula, and Alabama’s Port of Mobile as leading players for Cuba trade, albeit for different commodities.
But the current, overall picture is a far cry from where U.S.-Cuba trade stood in 2008. Through October of this year, U.S. exports to the island totaled $260.11 million, well off the record $601.15 million through the same period of 2008. You have to go back to 2003 to find a lower total, in fact, according to a WorldCity analysis of the most current U.S. Census Bureau data.
The United States does not accept imports from Cuba, under terms of the embargo.
Although the Obama decision made headlines nationally and internationally, reverberating far beyond Miami, Cuba isn’t a particularly important U.S. trade partner. This year, it ranks as the United States’ 136th most important trade partner, behind countries like Liechtenstein, Serbia, Yemen and Kinshasa, previously known as the Congo.
What has changed since the high-water mark of 2008?
In 2008, the United Stated had shipped $165.92 million in corn to Cuba, the leading export, through the first 10 months of the year. This year, that total is $28.24 million, a decrease of 82.98 percent.
In 2008, the United States had shipped $117.99 million in wheat to the island through October. It hasn’t shipped a grain of wheat there since 2011. Concentrated or sweetened milk or cream? Down from $9.98 million and a No. 9 rank to zero for the last three years and four of the last five.
Today, the largest U.S. export is chicken, which at $127.82 million is down slightly in value from 2012 and 2013 highs. Chicken is, however, accounting for a record 49.14 percent of all U.S. exports, largely because of sharp dips in other exports.
Reclaiming the top ranking in the nation from the Port of Pascagoula is Port Everglades, where the value of chicken shipments have been essentially flat for three years. The Mississippi port’s exports have fallen from $53.20 million in 2013 to $22.30 million this year. Overall, chicken exports are off 1.49 percent.
Almost 80 percent of the second most important export, soybean oilcake, often used as animal feed, ships from the Port of Brunswick, which is just north of Jacksonville and better known for its motor vehicle exports and imports. Soybean oilcake exports are down 12.78 percent in 2014, when compared to the previous year.
Soybeans and corn, the Nos. 3 and 4 U.S. exports to Cuba, respectively, are both off sharply in 2014. Dominating soybean exports to Cuba is the port at Newport News, which accounted for almost 90 percent of the shipments. Overall, soybean exports are down 23.78 percent.
Corn exports to Cuba leave from the three Louisiana ports at the mouth of the Mississippi River, downriver from the corn-growing Midwestern states, with Gramercy accounting for slightly more than 60 percent of the total. Corn exports from the United States have fallen 50.89 percent this year.
Clearly, it is not a pretty picture for Cuba, which has relied on the beneficence of the former Soviet Union, endured a “special period” after the collapse, and more recently Venezuela for economic support. Today, it is having trouble affording the most basic of foodstuffs to feed its people.
For Cuba watchers contemplating the possibility that telecommunications equipment could be exported from the United States to Cuba, the question is, “Where from here?” Will Cuba somehow be able to pay for these goods, when it already is struggling to pay for soybeans, under the restrictive terms of the Helms-Burton Act, which essentially necessitates cash up front? Will there be other changes that facilitate easier terms?
Currently, the equipment used for telecommunications and internet infrastructure most commonly leave from ports that align with the primary destinations of Canada and Mexico — places like El Paso, Texas, and Detroit — as well as some Asian nations. South Florida, which exports primarily to the Caribbean Basin and South America, ranks toward the bottom of the top 10 Customs districts in the primary categories, a bit player.
But Miami-Dade’s role could change if Cuba somehow is able to put a meaningful technology infrastructure in place in coming years and if its impoverished citizens can come to afford the cell phones that their neighbors in Latin America are buying at a dizzying pace. (A number of Latin American nations have 100 percent cellphone penetration — accomplished despite the poverty that still grips the region because of those with multiple phones — and smart phones are growing more rapidly than their simpler, feature phones that lack internet access.)
Across the world, the cellphone, particularly the smart phone, is being heralded for being a driving force for liberating people from poverty and oppression and opening opportunities.
Those who support the Obama decision, and those who support completely lifting the embargo, would love to imagine such a scenario in Cuba, laughably naïve to critics of the decision, who predict a further strengthening of the Castro grip on power and increased repression of the Cuban people.
If it were to happen, however, Miami-Dade would likely be ground zero not just for heated discussions but also for exports of high-tech gadgetry, from computers and printers to cellphones. Could the cellphone be the magic bullet that brings an end to a half century of Castro rule, could it accomplish what 10 U.S. presidents have not? Hard if not impossible to imagine that anything, much less a cellphone, could accomplish that, of course. But one thing’s indisputable: When it happens, under whatever circumstances, everyone will agree with the outcome, a free Cuba.
Ken Roberts is the founder and president of WorldCity, a Coral Gables-based company that pays attention to the impact of globalization on local communities. He can be reached at email@example.com.
U.S. exports to Cuba by commodity
Change in rank
Total of all commodities
Poultry, fresh, chilled or frozen
Soybean oilcake, other solid residue, not ground
Preparations for animal feeding
Exports of charitable items
Internal organs from animals
appliances, artificial body parts
Medical instruments for surgeons,
Soups, broths and preparations
Vulcanized rubber, various shapes and profiles, excluding hard rubber
Motor vehicles for transporting people
Source: WorldCity analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Data