A small South Carolina company has done something no American business has in over 40 years--sailed a U.S.-registered barge into Havana. Previously, the few American companies that shipped goods to Cuba chartered foreign vessels.
Maybank Shipping began cultivating a relationship with Cuba's import agency three years ago. Then last year, Cuba licensed a large shipper called Crowley, headquartered in Oakland, Calif., to import goods on foreign vessels. Turner Fabian, Maybank's vice president of operations, suspects the Cuban authorities didn't want to be too reliant on Crowley, so they eagerly granted a second license to Maybank, even though its fleet sails under the U.S. flag.
The barge operator, based in Charleston, completed its first trip in July and expects to return once a month for at least a year. Shipments of lumber, newsprint, and food products should generate about a third of the company's revenue, Fabian says. So far, Maybank has encountered no customs difficulties. Havana port workers have unloaded cargo with brisk efficiency. The Cubans even raised Old Glory above a fort in the harbor to welcome Maybank. "It gave me the chills," Fabian says.
But though the U.S. is now one of Cuba's Top 10 trading partners--and Cuba ranks as the U.S.'s 32nd largest partner--the dollar value of trade between the countries is still only $140 million. The opportunity for small U.S. exporters is further limited because Cuban trade requires cash-only payment terms and licensing rules are stringent, says John Kavulich, of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. But the fact that Cuba is working with Maybank is interesting. Kavulich interprets it as a signal from Cuba that, as it liberalizes, it is interested in trading with more small businesses.