Miami-Dade County

PortMiami preparing for daily ferry service to Cuba

A freighter is loaded at PortMiami on March 19, 2015. The port is planning to accommodate ferries carrying passengers and cargo when service to Cuba begins
A freighter is loaded at PortMiami on March 19, 2015. The port is planning to accommodate ferries carrying passengers and cargo when service to Cuba begins EL Nuevo Herald

Interest in Cuba-bound ferries has been high enough at PortMiami that officials are looking for ways to create temporary terminals to accommodate operators wanting to launch overnight runs to Havana every day.

Planning for a new passenger-and-cargo route to Cuba is detailed in hundreds of emails and internal documents obtained by the Miami Herald through Florida’s open-records laws. They show multiple ferry operators with newly secured licenses from Washington eager to lock down space at the port, which at one point was planning on the Cuba-bound vessels launching in March.

The documents show a yearlong effort by PortMiami to get ready for what could be a significant new enterprise there. Industry leaders predict the ferry routes will be popular with Cuban-Americans not only visiting their homeland, but bringing large stores of goods from the U.S. for family on the island.

Internal emails also hint at the dicey politics involved at the county-owned port, given the Castro regime’s continued pariah status in large swaths of Miami’s Cuban-American population.

Sensitivity was on display during an early email exchange between United Caribbean’s Bruce Nierenberg and senior port officials just weeks after President Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014 announcement on his pursuit of full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“Was good to see you all again,” Nierenberg wrote Port Director Juan Kuryla and his top aides in an email dated Jan. 21, 2015. “Just wanted to thank you for the enthusiastic approach to figuring out how to get the Port of Miami into its rightful position as the first Home port for overnight ferry service to Cuba.”

Kevin Lynskey, the port’s deputy director, complained to colleagues about Nierenberg’s account, which became a public document once it arrived in a county inbox.

“We went to great lengths to explain that the issues involving running cruise, ferry and/or cargo vessels to Cuba are playing out well above our heads,” Lynskey wrote. “He understands that the port follows the direction of our Mayor and Board and not vice versa. Bruce is a very bright guy, but emails like these don’t add to the goodwill bank.”

On Nov. 4, port officials scheduled a meeting to discuss what the federal Customs and Border Protection bureau would require for processing cargo and passengers on Cuba-bound ferries. An electronic agenda for the meeting asks “what other government agencies does CBP contemplate will have requirements based on travel to Cuba” and how could the port get those agencies “engaged in the planning effort?”

The agenda also included a question suggesting some urgency: “Considering an assumed ferry start-up date of March 2016, how can the Port meet this goal for start-up based on current CBP facilities and operations?”

For now, that timetable seems all but impossible. There was significant momentum in May when the Obama administration issued Cuba-ferry licenses to United Caribbean and other operators in talks with Port Miami. But industry executives say the Castro regime is holding back the approvals and port construction needed to welcome ferries from the United States.

“They told us they want to wait,” Nierenberg said Monday of Cuban officials. “They decided in the fall there were other infrastructure projects they had to do first.”

Nierenberg now expects U.S. ferries to be sailing to Havana by late 2016 or early 2017. Kuryla said last month his staff was exploring the creation of a new ferry terminal on the port’s southwest corner, a piece of prime real estate where David Beckham once tried to build a soccer stadium.

Behind the scenes, the port also has been pursuing options for housing Cuba-bound ferries as soon as possible.

CMA CGM, a shipping giant that already has Cuban facilities in Mariel, wrote port officials in May to suggest Miami-Dade buy floating pontoon ramps for the quick creation of a ferry terminal.

In July, the port signed a $60,000 contract with the Atkins engineering firm to explore how temporary terminals could be created “in order to enable an early start to ferry service.” Emails showed the port held a two-day planning “charrette” in August to study possible terminal options, with the consultant asking that operators be invited to attend.

Cuba-bound ferries were contemplated in the port’s 2011 master plan, which talked of short-term opportunities once Washington dropped trade barriers with Cuba and demand soared “to move people, vehicles and construction supplies to the island community.”

On July 18, a representative for the Italian shipping giant Grimaldi wrote PortMiami with specifications for the Zeus Palace, a 220-foot ferry.

The email called the Zeus Palace “the first vessel that they would assign to the Miami/Havana operation as well as their proposed schedule [three sailings a week]. The second vessel would come into the schedule approximately one month after the start up phase and thus would then increase the number of departures and arrivals to one a day.”

Baja Ferry, a Miami company that also secured a Cuba-ferry license from Washington, last year sent port officials a one-sheet summary of its plans: a 623-foot ferry carrying 2,500 passengers a week to Havana through three overnight runs starting at 7 p.m. and ending on the Cuban shore at 5 a.m., according to a Baja document circulated by port officials on Sept. 30.

Lynskey said Monday that the March start date was used as a planning tool with Atkins consultants, based on when operators thought they would be asking the port for ferry berths. He said PortMiami was in talks with about 10 cruise and ferry companies interested in Cuba operations.

“No company has yet been given permission to travel to Cuba by the Cuban authorities, though several are selling tickets as if they are traveling to Cuba,” Lynskey wrote in an email response to written questions. The “Port has been told that the Cuban government is not very close to providing permission for ferries to run from the U.S. to Cuba, but is more inclined sometime this year to possibly allow cruise ships. Cruise ships have been visiting Cuba for years, just not from the U.S..”

When the Herald first reported the Port’s Cuba-ferry efforts on Jan. 7, the news caused a stir in political circles. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez summoned reporters the next day to emphasize that any Cuba-bound ferries would simply mirror the already busy air service to Havana offered at the county’s airport. And he portrayed the port as interested in the land-based facilities, with the ferries’ destinations up to the operators themselves.

“We don’t do business with countries,” Gimenez said. “We just do business with carriers.”

As the world’s leading home for cruise ships, PortMiami already is on the leading edge of expanding commercial ties with Cuba. Carnival Corp. plans to begin Cuba cruises in May.

While historic, Carnival’s itinerary expansion only required the company to navigate regulatory issues with Washington. Cuba-bound ferries could be more problematic for port officials, because it involves a county agency creating new terminal facilities and berths that currently don’t exist.

After the Herald story published on Jan. 7, Kuryla received an email from Eddy Acevedo, a top staffer for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, a top anti-Castro hardliner in Congress.

“Ferry service to Cuba. Really?” Acevedo wrote Kuryla. “We need to discuss this matter.”

Daniel Sepúlveda, former U.S. point man on telecom policy toward Cuba, said the United States felt an urgency to make progress and sign deals while President Barack Obama was still in office but Cuba appeared to want to take its time.