Florida Gov. Rick Scott threatened Wednesday to strip state funds from two South Florida seaports ready to sign business deals with the Cuban government.
Over three posts on Twitter, the governor said he would ask state lawmakers to restrict dollars for ports that “enter into any agreement with [the] Cuban dictatorship” — as Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach plan to do Thursday and Friday, respectively.
“We cannot condone Raul Castro’s oppressive behavior,” Scott tweeted in English and Spanish, using the preferred social media platform of his friend, President Donald Trump. “Serious security/human rights concerns.”
Scott’s position came a day after the first legal cargo from Cuba in more than half a century — artisanal charcoal — arrived Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. The Port of Palm Beach is located in Riviera Beach.
Jackie Schutz, a Scott spokeswoman, said the governor takes issue with the ports inking memorandums of understanding with the Cuban government because he “firmly” believes the U.S. should not do business with Cuba “until there is freedom and democracy.”
“What I don’t believe is in our ports doing business with a ruthless dictator,” Scott told reporters in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday.
The governor will make his request to the Legislature, which ultimately sets the state budget and can ignore Scott if it wishes. The Florida Department of Transportation’s budget shows more than $37 million budgeted for Port Everglades projects over the next five years — including $23 million for a dredging the port has sought for three decades — and $920,000 for the Port of Palm Beach.
Manuel Almira, the Port of Palm Beach’s executive director, told the Miami Herald in an email Wednesday that the port has reached out to Scott’s office following his tweets.
“The Governor’s position was surprising, to say the least,” Almira said.
Port Everglades did not respond to requests for comment — not even to discuss the Cuban delegation’s schedule Thursday.
Jim Pyburn, Port Everglades’ director of business development, told the Miami Herald on Tuesday, before Scott revealed his position, that the port’s deal with the National Port Administration of Cuba — in the works since early 2016 and ready to sign since May — could lead to joint marketing studies and training.
“We would like to see U.S. exports to Cuba increase,” he said. “Imports are good, too.”
A Cuban delegation plans to visit a number of ports over the coming week, including Port Tampa Bay, which does not have an imminent deal with the country in the works.
“Our port has taken a very cautious approach to Cuba,” said Ed Miyagishima, Port Tampa Bay’s vice president for communications and external affairs, who once worked for Scott. “The port itself is Cuba-ready, in the sense that we’re ready to work with all the entities once the embargo is lifted, but we’re taking a very conservative approach. We are not signing an MOU with the Cuban government, just because there’s so much ambiguity in Cuba policy right now.”
The delegation has no plans to drop in on PortMiami.
“We were never approached by any Cuban port delegation — never got a phone call, nothing at all,” said Andria Muñiz-Amador, a port spokeswoman.
Last May, Carnival Corp.’s Fathom Line launched an every-other-week cruise from PortMiami to Cuba that circumnavigates the island. The cruise is being discontinued this spring, but Carnival hopes to add Cuban ports of call on its other Caribbean cruises.
Executive orders issued by former President Barack Obama over the past two years eased some Cuba-related trade restrictions, making shipping agreements possible. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked Tuesday if Trump planned quick Cuba action of his own, perhaps to reverse some of Obama’s work, as Trump said he would do absent a more favorable arrangement for the U.S.
“We’ve got nothing that we’re ready to announce,” Spicer said.
Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman and Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.