Washington, April 19 (AP)--A cargo ship carrying donated goods left Jacksonville, FL, for Havana April 19 as regularly scheduled shipping between the U.S. and Cuba resumed after 40 years.
The vessel, owned by Crowley Liner Services of Jacksonville, is to unload in Cuba on Saturday. Crowley is the first shipping company to get a federal license for such service. Shippers also must get licenses for sales.
"It's clearly precedent-setting," said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, an organization representing U.S. businesses. "It's an important visual moment in the bilateral relationship."
The Havana stop was added to a weekly route between Florida and Mexico. Whether the Cuba service will continue depends on demand, said Mark Miller, a spokesman for Crowley.
"The decision to call on Cuba on a regular basis is contingent on the shippers having licenses, having cargo and having buyers in Cuba," Miller said.
Congress last year authorized the sale of food and agricultural products to Cuba but put tight restrictions on such transactions, which cannot be subsidized by the federal government or financed by U.S. banks.
Cuba is urging Congress to ease those terms. Fernando Remirez, Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, has said the restrictions "make it almost impossible to have any" sales.
Crowley has had discussions with more than 100 companies interested in shipping products to Cuba, Miller said. He declined to say whether Crowley had made any bookings for commercial sales or to disclose what was on the ship that left April 19.
"There will be some sales, the question is when, not if," Kavulich said. "Likely they will be small, more symbolic sales in the beginning, especially intended to reward the companies and organizations and members of Congress who have worked to develop expansion of the commercial relationship."
The Crowley service also will save nonprofit organizations that are giving food and other items to Cuba. Without a shipping service between the U.S. and Cuba, donated goods have had to be trucked to Canada or Mexico and then loaded on ships, Kavulich said.
Much of the Cuba-bound cargo is likely to consist of poultry and dairy products, according to the council.
If there is not enough business to justify the Jacksonville-Havana leg, cargo will be taken to Mexican ports and then transferred to Cuba-bound vessels.
The Bush Administration opposes any further relaxation of the embargo on Cuba. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates the embargo costs the United States $658 million to $1 billion in sales, or about 17% to 27% of Cuba's imports.