Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade mayor plays down idea of Cuba ferry plans

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez at a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2015.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez at a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2015. MIAMI HERALD

A day after talk of a possible ferry service to Cuba from PortMiami roiled local politics, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez held a press conference and played down the idea of his administration pursuing a commercial link with the island nation.

“We don’t do business with countries. We just do business with carriers,” Gimenez said at the start of the conference, a day after the Miami Herald reported the port was pursuing a terminal for ferries traveling between Miami and Cuba. “Where the ferry services decided to go in order to make money, etc., well, that’s up to the ferry service as long as it’s legal.”

His comments followed those of his port chief, Juan Kuryla, discussing plans for a new ferry terminal on the heels of operators approaching Miami-Dade about berths for runs between Miami and Cuba.

Kuryla told the Herald Wednedsay that following President Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014, announcement of a new diplomatic opening with Havana “we have started getting a lot of requests for potential sites for a ferry service to Cuba.... These are all major, worldwide ferry operators that have approached the port, asking for a location to launch a service here from Miami to Havana.”

“We didn’t go out looking for this business,” Kuryla said. “It has come to us. We need to be prepared [for] when the situation is here, when the business is ready to launch.”

Though the port’s official master plan for development called for putting offices and hotels on the facility’s southwest corner, Kuryla said port staff was now exploring a dredge to create a ferry terminal there. “I asked staff to put together a plan and really look at whether or not this could be a viable ferry berth,” he said. “It really is looking like it could.”

“Once trade is fully open with Cuba, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have daily ferries to Cuba. It might be two or three different operators leaving from PortMiami,” he added. “We have a tremendous geographic advantage for this service.”

On Thursday, Kuryla said the ferry terminal now being explored at PortMiami should not be viewed as one for vessels bound for Cuba. “We haven’t pursued any business in Cuba,” he said. Asked if he had met with companies interested in running ferries from PortMiami to Cuba, Kuryla declined to answer.

Miami has long been the stronghold for preserving Cuba’s outlaw status in U.S. law and diplomacy, so the notion of Miami-Dade embracing a new commercial route to Cuba caught some elected leaders by surprise.

“I don’t understand what the urgency is right now for the county,” said County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the son of a Bay of Pigs veteran and a hard-line Cuba critic on the 13-member commission. “I have a little bit of anxiety dealing with this issue when nothing has happened in Cuba to warrant a change.”

Word of a potential ferry terminal at PortMiami for Cuba-bound vessels surfaced in recent meetings Gimenez had with Miami officials on the future of the southwest corner. Xavier Suarez, a county commissioner, said he attended a meeting with Gimenez and Ken Russell, Miami’s newest commissioner, on the site. He said Kuryla described the land “as an ideal place for the possibility of a ferry to Cuba.”

Last year, Washington granted the first ferry licenses allowing vessels to travel to Cuba, though operators are mostly waiting for Havana to give the go-ahead. South Florida is expected to be the industry’s base, given its proximity to the island nation.

In his press conference, Gimenez said Miami-Dade’s port and airport already are active in commerce with Cuba. “We know the cruise industry is already going to start service to Cuba from PortMiami later this year,” he said. “We also know there are about 14,000 passengers that go from Miami International Airport to Cuba every week.”

Should Miami-Dade build a new ferry terminal, he said, local officials wouldn’t have a say in where the boats could or couldn’t go. “That legality is decided by [the] federal government,” he said. “Not by Miami-Dade County.”