End the embargo

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Many of my colleagues in the marine industry are downright depressed because of President Obama’s re-election. It’s a largely Republican club to which I belong, and not without reason. Democrats are seen as unsympathetic to business in general and to those that serve “luxury” markets in particular. So after six years down in the dumps — an interval in which entire boating brands have disappeared — boat biz types had been praying for a GOP rainmaker.

After two months, I assume my friends have navigated the stages of grief and come to acceptance because now there’s work to be done and a real benefit to be obtained from that very same election. This truly consequential benefit would not have been remotely possible had Mitt Romney won.

That’s because Romney stood on a Florida stage and swore he would undo all the steps Obama had taken during his first term to allow more Americans the ability to travel legally to Cuba. Romney was courting the Cuban-American vote when he made that promise, and unlike many of his other assertions, this is one that I believed.

In a tight race such as Florida’s, the Cuban vote could have swung the outcome. Once in office, Romney would have delivered on his promise for fear that anything less would have alienated these influential backers when he sought a second term.

Such has it been for decades.

A small group of ethnic Americans, including their stable of wealthy political donors, have held hostage America’s foreign policy toward a country on our very doorstep. Keep in mind that the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba more than 21 years ago, ending any possible inference of a threat to our national security. In contrast, 20 years was all it took for the United States to re-establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam — our enemy in a real shooting war.

Benefits of Cuba travel
On to the benefit, which is the premise of this blog: Should the United States end the ban that prevents most of its citizens from traveling to Cuba, tens of thousands of American vessels would cross the Florida Straits to cruise and fish that island nation in the first year.

The Florida marina industry would benefit tremendously because when we talk U.S. recreational boating, all paths to Cuba go through Florida. To give you an idea of the scale of the enterprise, Florida has a not so insignificant $14 billion marine industry. That is, when the good times are rolling, not so much right now.

According to a 1994 study by the University of Florida that was undertaken because rational people assumed the travel ban was about to end way back then, Florida would see a surge in boat traffic. Nothing has happened in the meantime to undermine that conclusion.

“There is little doubt that increased recreational boating between the U.S. and Cuba could have major economic, social and environmental consequences for South Florida, Cuba and the Caribbean,” the investigators wrote. “Much of the marine industry in Florida will be impacted by this increased boating activity, with perhaps the Central and South Florida west coast, the Southeast Florida coast and the Florida Keys experiencing the greatest impact.”

Of course, the boating industry is just one sector of a very big economy that would benefit as a whole. The Brattle Group consultants concluded in 2002 that lifting travel restrictions to Cuba would expand U.S. “economic output” by as much as $1.6 billion, creating more than 23,000 jobs. This estimate did not include the marine industry; it focused on travel by air, fast ferries and cruise ships.

Cuba by the numbers
Another premise assumed by this blog is that boaters are itching to go to Cuba. Depending on weather, well-found vessels of 25 feet or more can make the crossing from the Florida Keys. What they will find is an antidote to overdevelopment.

The same isolation that has forced Cubans to conserve a fleet of 40,000 pre-1959 American automobiles has left the coast largely undeveloped. Let me take you through that argument by the numbers:

Land mass: 44,000 square miles
Climate: tropical in trade-wind belt, modified by frontal systems from the United States and hurricanes
Shoreline: 3,000 nautical miles
Circumnavigation: 1,650 nautical miles
Islands and keys: 4,195
Percentage of coastal shelf navigable by boats over 25 feet: 70 percent
Quality of Cuban marine cartography: Superb
Boating regions: 7
Dive centers: 18
Marinas: 15, with 789 slips
Planned marinas: 23 additional, with more than 5,000 slips
Major colonial port cities: Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago and Baracoa
Distances to: Florida, 90 miles; Mexico,110 miles; Cayman Islands, 170 miles; Jamaica, 80 miles; Hispaniola, 45 miles; Bahamas, 45 miles; Turks & Caicos, 110 miles
Number of visiting yachts: Before 2004,* more than 2,000 annually; after 2004, about 1,000 annually
Percentage of visiting yachts from the United States: Before 2004, 69 percent*; after 2004, 17 percent
Number of recreational vessels greater than 25 feet LOA, registered in Florida: 92,000
Estimated number of yachts that will travel to Cuba in the first year after the travel ban ends: 60,000 to 80,000

• On Feb. 26, 2004, the administration of President George W. Bush issued a proclamation outlining measures to crack down on Americans traveling by boat to Cuba in contravention of the U.S. embargo.

Feel free to think skeptically of that last number about the number of boats visiting in the first year, but even if we cut it by half that’s still a whole lot of money changing hands as owners buy fuel and dockage, spares, supplies, new electronics and replacement systems. American boaters rightly will think that because of an initial lack of marine infrastructure in Cuba they must be as self-sufficient as possible.

And there’s another potential customer to consider, and it’s a big one. The Cuban government owns more than 6,000 vessels — from PWC to dive boats and sportfishermen to 50-passenger sailing catamarans — attached to the various tourist resorts. Like any boats anywhere, these are constantly in need of repair and new parts.

Jose Escrich, director of the Ministry of Tourism division that operates most of these vessels, says the end of the U.S. embargo would mean that he could source new parts directly from the United States rather than the current circuitous — and expensive — shipping paths through third countries. Ponder that, Southeast distributors!

Personal ‘foreign policies’
For years, I’ve been talking to American boaters about the subject of Cuba. There have been a few exceptions, but the vast majority across the political spectrum — liberal, conservative, anarchist — say they would love to take their boats to Cuba, and like most Americans informed about the issue, they oppose the travel ban.

Based on documents I have seen in Cuba, about 120 American skippers risk fines by visiting Cuba by boat each year illegally. Surprisingly, many of those I have spoken to in Cuba are otherwise politically conservative.

These individualistic Americans have convened their own personal Supreme Court and declared that a ban on travel to a neighboring nation with whom we are at peace to be unconstitutional. They have established a personal foreign policy of discovery and one-on-one relationships with Cuban people.

Who stands in the way of this scenario for all Americans?

Ironically, some of the biggest opponents of travel freedom represent the state that would likely benefit the most from normal relations — two of the most prominent being Florida U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. These two Republicans are among the true believers, but they are reinforced by a posse of congress people around the country who take Cuban-American campaign contributions like hogs at a trough.

These folks like to frame the debate in terms of human rights, even though Cuba is less an offender than China, America’s banker and partner in Wal-Mart. In fact, Cuba is following the Chinese model by gradually expanding the rights of its citizens and converting from a centralized to a free-market economy.

American boaters often ask me why this is so. Why does this minority within the Cuban-American minority keep up the fight? The answer is hatred — hatred of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul and all of the Cubans that stood with them. The human rights argument is specious. Nothing would help the ordinary people of Cuba more than a wave of generously tipping Americans wandering Cuban shores.

If a magic bill were introduced in Congress that would award every household in Cuba $1,000 without cost to U.S. taxpayers but included a clause that awarded the Castro brothers 10 cents, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen would oppose it.

The real question is, why do we let the Ros-Lehtinens and Rubios get away with this? They are supposed to represent us, but they are driving foreign policy based not on the best interests of Floridians, Americans, boaters, the marine industry or even Cubans in Cuba, but solely on their own personal animosities.

It’s time that boaters and the marine industry take a stand. I’m not asking our beleaguered industry to launch a Washington lobbying campaign, but it would be nice if BoatUS and the National Marine Manufacturers Association would use their lobbyists to make the case. At the very least these boating groups and the various marine associations of Florida should issue simple policy statements saying that ending the U.S. travel ban to Cuba will help the American marine industry by giving Americans a new reason to own a boat.

Marine media companies should join the chorus, as well. Their reward would be a brand new subject to write about and an expanding audience eager to read about it.

The U.S. travel industry mounted a major public campaign to open Cuba for American tourism a few years ago. Although it obviously did not entirely succeed, the Obama administration subsequently loosened the restrictions to allow tens of thousands of theretofore ineligible Americans to go on organized “people-to-people” tours of the island nation.

Representatives of the agricultural states long have lobbied for an end to the embargo, seeing Cuba as a customer for farm goods. Few Americans realize that the United States currently supplies Cuba with many of its staples — beans, for example — although this trade is constrained by regulations favored by the Miami cabal.

Obama needs to lead
For the embargo to end, we need presidential leadership. The Helms-Burton Act, which keeps this Cold War construct in place, can only be undone by another act of Congress. As anyone who has been alive for the past four years knows, between the partisanship and the payola, our House and Senate are unlikely to accomplish anything, absent strong presidential leadership. Without re-election to worry about, Obama is well poised to bring about peace with our neighbor. Nixon went to China. McCain went back to Hanoi. All of us should be able to go to Cuba.

Counterintuitively, one of the greatest individual beneficiaries of normalized relations with Cuba would be Rubio himself. As long as he continues to be mired in the swamp of tribal politics, the talented Mr. Rubio will be unworthy of the presidency. Ending the embargo — even if it’s against his wishes — would let Rubio kick that mud off his boots and become a credible Republican candidate in 2016 and beyond.

Till next time.