Cuba's Mariel Port: Once An Escape, Now A Window To The Future

Jun 25, 2014
Originally published on June 26, 2014 9:20 am

When you arrive at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, you're greeted with a barrage of billboards with the popular Cuban government slogan promoting tourism: "Cuba, where the past and the present converge."

Perhaps nowhere on the island is that statement more true than in the city of Mariel, about 30 miles from Havana on the northwestern coast.

Mariel port is strategically located at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, facing the United States. In the 1980s, it was the exit point for 125,000 Cubans who were desperately fleeing to Florida, some of them with assistance from the U.S. government. The Soviet Union was collapsing, and its aid to Cuba was withering. That, coupled with decades of U.S. embargo, was causing the island's economy to nosedive.

Today, the mood in Mariel is very different. It still has the feel of a sleepy, humble Caribbean town, but there's excitement, too: The Cuban government is currently building a special economic zone that, among other things, will be open to companies that have no Cuban government ownership.

Perhaps most important, Mariel is a deep-water port, and will be able to accommodate the world's largest cargo ships. If successful, it could mean big money for Cuba.

But it's more than just about the money, says Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institution and a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego.

"What Cuba hopes to do is regain their historical status as a major transshipment point," he says, "mediating international commerce traveling from the Americas and Asia and circling around the Caribbean as far as Europe and eventually the east coast of United States."

We arrived in Mariel on a hot summer day, and immediately headed down to the water, where we ran into a group of schoolboys getting ready for a cool dip. Off on the horizon, we could see the heavy construction of the port.

Even though these kids are more concerned with beisbol than with economics, they said they were excited about the port construction. A few of them dreamed of making it as a pelotero — or baseball player — in the national league, and one of them said he dreamed of going to the U.S.

But a couple of them — who weren't even born when rusty boats carried people out of Mariel toward Florida in 1980 — also said they'd love to work in the free trade zone when it opens.

As the boys dove in for their swim off the docks, we headed to Chin, a paladar, or restaurant, that serves typical Cuban food: pork, rice and beans, stewed goat, and a mean cup of coffee for dessert. The owner of Chin, Onil Lemus, has seen Mariel change dramatically over the past 30 years.

Lemus, like so many Cubans, has watched three of his siblings leave Cuba for the U.S. He described a childhood very different from the one the boys we just left on the docks are enjoying. He grew up in a Mariel where parents would guard their children closely, for fear of all the strangers coming into the town to escape through the port.

When his second brother left, he said, "it broke my soul." (He was too young to remember the first brother who left; ultimately, a third brother fled, too.) He said he thinks the pain of losing her children made his mother physically ill.

"She never got better," Lemus said. "This is something you eventually feel some type of relief from, but you don't recover from losing a son like that."

The mood in Mariel has certainly changed — but there will be hurdles to the new port's success. Among them, the future of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which has been in place for more than 50 years, will be a crucial factor to the port's success. There has been much speculation on whether the embargo might be lifted.

"It would be very important," notes Hugo Pons Duarte of Cuba's National Economist and Accountant Association.

There's also the issue of sorting out how the Cuban workforce will participate in the free trade zone. Pons Duarte explained to us that multinational corporations will have to pay Cuban employees through a Cuban government contractor, rather than directly — which could make the option less attractive than other Caribbean ports.

Back at his restaurant, Lemus said he notices people are happier these days. He echoed a recent statement by Cuban President Raul Castro on the island's economic change when he told us: "I'm in no rush. Go slow, but go forward."

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene at member station WLRN in Miami, where we landed after a week in Cuba. Here in Florida, many Cuban-Americans are waiting for the end of the Castro era. There's a feeling that the island will become more free, more Democratic and more open then. In Cuba, people are waiting for something else - the end of the U.S. embargo, which blocks American goods and in the view of most on the island, hurts Cuba's economy and its people. We wanted to see Cuba at this moment - a country still being shaped by its past but with anticipation building for what might be next. We saw this pull clearly in one town we visited.


GREENE: We're standing along the water in Mariel, Cuba. It's about 45 minutes east of Havana. I'm on a dock, and there's seven or eight young boys who are just having the time of their lives, splashing in the water after a long school day. In 1980, this is the spot where more than 100,000 Cubans boarded boats and left this island for the United States. It was a moment that divided so many families between this Islands and Florida and other parts in the U.S. And now this place, Mariel - really important again. I'm looking across the water at all the structures of Mariel port. I'm looking at some ships loading up shipping containers. The Cuban government says they are going to make this just the centerpiece of the economy in the coming years. The government's envisioning a major international shipping port and free trade zone which could mean jobs for Cuban workers and a lot of tax money for the country. Brazil has already pumped nearly a billion dollars into this expansion project. The teenage boys out here - they weren't born yet when those rusty boats carried people away in 1980. They only know the Mariel of today.

What's going on over there?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: They're building a (unintelligible) - like a free zone.

GREENE: Everybody talking about it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He says it's changed a lot here.

GREENE: The Mariel they know gives people a reason to stay.

You guys want to work in shipping industry?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: If he could work here, like, on one of those ships, he'd love to - handling one of those cranes.

GREENE: Do know anyone who works over there?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: The mom of one of his friends works as an engineer there.

GREENE: Walking up from this waterfront park, you come into a town of cement and stucco houses. Some of the roofs are caving in. There's laundry hanging from wires. There are few businesses - most people just sort of sitting outside on their porches. But there is something with a sign outside here on the left that says restaurant chin. It's a cramped cafe with just four tables where we ate stewed goat from a local farmer and also met the restaurant owner Onill Lemus. He's a stocky man with a bushy gray mustache who knows Mariel's past.

Did you have any family who left?

ONILL LEMUS: (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: His 19-year-old brother left.

GREENE: Onill was eight-years-old and asleep with no chance to say goodbye to his older brother.

(Spanish spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He just left in the middle of the night - didn't tell anyone. And the next morning, his mother and his father were crying.

LEMUS: (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: I think you don't recover from that - from losing someone like that. He has two daughters. One is 24 and the other's 28.

LEMUS: (Spanish spoke).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He says if they left, I would go crazy.

GREENE: Of course Onill has two other brothers who also left the United States later.

Why do you think people leave?

LEMUS: (Through translator) I don't know. I'm not leaving I've gone there, but I came back. I have my family here. I have my business. I'm not going to go there and invent a new life. I'm going to die here.

GREENE: Unlike his brothers, Onill imagines a future in Cuba, in Mariel. And when he looks to that future, he looks out at that water, at the port that's being expanded. He says it will make people here feel very happy. They hope it will bring prosperity and so does the Cuban government. The vision is that foreign firms will employ Cubans and bring in tax money, but partnering with a socialist government - well, that can be tricky. We wanted to get a sense for whether Mariel can succeed. So in Havana, we went to the office of Hugo Ponce Duarte, an economist who consults closely with the Cuban government. We asked him about one concern - that it will be expensive to hire labor because the government will be demanding a share of all the wages.

Will Cuban workers be paid directly by these international companies?

HUGO PONCE DUARTE: No - through the employers which will contract the Cuban workers, and they will pay to the workers.

GREENE: Do you worry that foreign companies will not be so happy about, you know, that arrangement?

DUARTE: Well, I heard some people who work with foreign investors say that that is one of the main perceptions of some investors.

GREENE: Those investors have to understand, he insisted, that Cubans government is only acting with the interests of its workers in mind. Now after arriving in the United States after our trip, we reached Richard Feinberg. He's a political economist who closely follows Cuba. I asked him how important it is for companies using Mariel to be able to access the U.S. market, which isn't possible with the American embargo in place.

RICHARD FEINBERG: Extremely important. In the short term, some firms may be willing to export to Latin America. For example, the Brazilian cigarette company that is going to invest in Mariel will be selling cigarettes back into the Brazilian market. But the logical geopolitical market for firms manufacturing in Cuba is without a doubt the eastern seaboard of the United States.

GREENE: And yet, Brazil's government and companies close to it are already investing that billion dollars in Mariel. To understand why, we reached NPR's South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. She's done a lot of reporting in Cuba, herself. She's based in Brazil, and I asked her why Brazil's so interested in Mariel.


LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Well, as you've seen firsthand in your reporting, David, Cuba is changing, and looking down the road, the Castro brothers won't last forever. And while the U.S. doesn't and won't invest in Cuba for now, other powers in the region are looking at what is coming, and Brazil is certainly one of them. The new Mariel port, as Julius Y (PH) from the Council on Foreign Relations put it to me, is spitting distance from the U.S. and that port is a deeper water port than that of Houston. And so we've got the Panama Canal expansion coming down the pipeline, which will mean more trade flow. And so Brazil, via Cuba, will practically have its own port near U.S. shores. So it's a major geostrategic move. In the shorter term, it opens doors to trade with Central American and the Caribbean. Brazilian companies are moving aggressively throughout Latin America, especially companies like Odebrecht, which are constructing the port. So they're not in it for ideology. They're in it to get something out of it.

GREENE: You know, we heard from a Cuban economist for some of the plans of this port. They're putting a lot of restrictions on - saying, for example, that foreign companies won't be able to just come and hire a Cuban worker. They'll have to do it through the Cuban government. Does that give some foreign companies pause?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sure. Investing in Cuba, potentially, has great rewards, but it also carries a lot of risk. The Cuban government's policy on foreign investment - I think I'll say this politely - evolving. Big companies like Odebrecht, of course, have Brazil's government investment arm coming their losses. But smaller companies have more to lose. They don't have that backing.

GREENE: Is there - I mean, you said that it's not necessarily about ideology, but is there some larger residence that Cuba has in Latin America that might make a Latin American country say you know, I'd rather tighten my relationship with Cuba as opposed to building more ties with the United States?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I don't think it's either or, but Cuba certainly has enormous sentimental power in Latin America. It's seen as a country that stood up to the U.S. despite an economic embargo, despite what they perceived as the threats of the United States. There's a great deal of resentment in this region over the USA's actions here over the decades - the bloody interventions to backing bloodier cues.

And so an average person, I think, from this region admires Cuba.

GREENE: Tomorrow, a road trip from a beach town in northern Cuba to a sugar mill town and Cuba's interior. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.