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Title: U.S. Permits Ferry Service to Cuba
Source: Wall Street Journal
URL Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-per ... rry-service-to-cuba-1430874884
Published: May 5, 2015
Author: José de Córdoba
Post Date: 2015-05-05 21:42:38 by Willie Green
Keywords: None
Views: 476

The U.S. Treasury granted licenses to three American companies to operate ferry services to Cuba for the first time in more than a half century, potentially bringing the former Cold War antagonists closer.

The move is part of President Barack Obama’s strategy to normalize relations with Cuba by engaging in direct talks with the government of President Raúl Castro. Reviving a mode of travel between the two countries that was common in the 1950s would ease the people-to-people contact that is a cornerstone of Mr. Obama’s policy of engagement.

“It’s an important symbol that re-establishing of relations with Cuba is a legacy project for Obama,” said Robert Muse, a lawyer who represents one of the three companies. “He is going as far and as fast as possible.”

The proposed ferry services must still obtain Havana’s approval, lawyers for the companies said, but that the U.S. move clears the way for negotiations.

Unclear was how receptive Cuba’s government would be, as it seeks to balance economic benefits with concerns that any sudden change could endanger the island’s one-party rule.

“Cuba will welcome initiatives that change the economic status quo, but they will fit the operation to what politically they can absorb,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which provides information about Cuba issues.

The Treasury granted licenses to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Havana Ferry Partners LLC, San Juan, Puerto Rico-based America Cruise Ferries, and Baja Ferries USA LLC, which is based in Coconut Grove, Fla., according to the companies and license notifications. The agency’s Office of Foreign Assets Control confirmed it issued licenses, but didn’t say to whom.

The proposed ferry service would be able to take passengers in 12 approved categories, including family visits, educational, cultural and religious activities. While Mr. Obama has eased restrictions on travel between the two countries, tourism isn’t permitted.

James Whisenand, an attorney who represents America Cruise Ferries, said the company hopes to begin a three-times a week ferry service between Miami and Havana by the end of the year. He said the company projected carrying 200,000 passengers on the 253-mile route at a price of about $300 dollars per person, including several suitcases.

Since the Obama administration first started easing travel restrictions to Cuba several years ago, approved travelers have been able to use several Washington-sanctioned charter flights to the island.

Mr. Whisenand said the cost of his client’s ferry service would be about a third less than those charter flights and would be able to carry vehicles to Cuba. The cars would have to be brought back to the U.S. at the trip’s end, he said.

Mr. Muse, who represents Baja Ferries, said the license would allow the company to approach Cuba’s government and say, “‘here’s my license, let’s work it out at your end.’”

Mr. Muse said Baja Ferries, which now carries 250,000 passengers a year between Mexican Pacific ports, said the company plans passenger and cargo service between Miami to Havana. Cargo service, he said, would gradually replace an army of human “mules”—travelers who now carry everything from clothes, paint, kitchen equipment and car parts to a growing number of Cubans who are starting small businesses.

Leonard D. Moecklin, a partner with Havana Ferry Partners, said the company hoped to attract 100,000 passengers a year with tickets that are cheaper than airplane fares and large free baggage allowances. Mr. Moecklin said he had been trying for five years to get a license from the U.S. Treasury, and had been rejected three times. His company plans service to the island from Fort Lauderdale, Key West and Tampa.

Mr. Moecklin, who said his partners include a Dutch shipbuilder with operations in Cuba, said he has been working exporting foods ranging from popcorn to tuna fish from the U.S. to Cuba for the last 15 years.

“We now have a plan to take 25 Harley-Davidson motorcyclists and their bikes for an exchange with Cuba’s Harley-Davidson club in Havana for a cultural exchange,” said Mr. Moecklin.

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