Untangling the Complexities of Trade with Cuba

Does the U.S. embargo against Cuba make it illegal for any U.S. company to sell anything or ship anything to Cuba? Not exactly. There are exceptions to the law — primarily involving agricultural products. But it's still difficult to trade with Cuba.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

And now to Cuba. You've heard of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, so you might think it's illegal for any U.S. company to sell anything to Cuba. That's not true. There actually are lots of exceptions to the law, and American companies ship things, primarily agricultural products, to the island nation all the time. Still, the sailing for those who want to trade is far from smooth.

In the final installment of his three-part series on Cuba, NPR's Adam Davidson explains why.

ADAM DAVIDSON: A big squat ship, the Crowley Universe, is basically a floating parking lot. It's being loaded with about a hundred tractor-trailers, most of them carrying frozen chickens. It's getting ready for its weekly Wednesday run to Havana out of a port in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Jay Brickman runs the Cuba business for Crowley Maritime, and he says he wishes Crowley could send a lot more than just one ship a week to Cuba. Their main business is the Caribbean and the biggest thing in the Caribbean by far is Cuba.

Mr. JAY BRICKMAN (Crowley Maritime Corporation): We have on any given day, say, three or four ships that go right in front of Cuba.

DAVIDSON: On most of your runs, you have to actually go out of your way to avoid Cuba. Is that right?

Mr. BRICKMAN: We say Cuba is in the way or it's on the way.

DAVIDSON: Crowley is a major player in Caribbean trade. It ships cars to Puerto Rico, TVs to the Dominican Republic, sweaters from Haiti to the U.S. It can't ship any of that stuff to Cuba. U.S. law only allows shipments of some agricultural, pharmaceutical and humanitarian goods. Since Crowley can't haul high-value products, they're not making a profit on Cuba trade, says Crowley's Mike Hopkins.

Mr. MIKE HOPKINS (Crowley Maritime Corporation): The best we can say is that it's a break even for us and it's - we're doing it for the future. We're doing it for the future of our company and the future of Cuba.

DAVIDSON: Now, does the U.S. government just accept their word that they're not shipping anything that violates the embargo?

Mr. MIKE ROBERTS (Attorney): It's a little more complicated than that.

DAVIDSON: Mike Roberts is a lawyer, and apparently likes to understate things. He helps Crowley and others make their way through the tricky bureaucratic rules that governs trade with Cuba. For one thing, if you want to sell products to Cuba, you'll probably have to visit the country to pitch your wares. But...

Mr. ROBERTS: You do need to have a license just to travel to Cuba.

DAVIDSON: Well, technically, you can go there all you want. You're just not allowed to give any money to the Cuban government. But there's a problem. The Cuban government owns just about everything: the hotels, the car rental places, the big restaurants. So you have to get permission from the Treasury Department to violate the ban. You send a letter to Washington explaining the purpose of your trip, and then you wait.

Mr. ROBERTS: I've had responses within two or three weeks. I've also had them sit there for quite a long time, for many months.

DAVIDSON: Once you get permission and travel to Cuba and convince the Cubans to buy your merchandise, can you then just ship your products down, I asked Roberts?

Mr. ROBERTS: No, you'll need a license - or actually an authorization from the Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security.

DAVIDSON: And this is totally different from the other license I got just to go there?

Mr. ROBERTS: That's correct.

DAVIDSON: Even with the additional Commerce Department permission, you still aren't ready. You have to go back to the Treasury Department. They have a rule that you can't send Cuba anything unless the Cuban government paid for it first, so you'll need to ask the Cubans to wire money into your account.

Mr. ROBERTS: That's probably not going to happen.

DAVIDSON: Oh, right. No Cuban bank is allowed to have direct ties to any American bank, so the Cubans need to send the money or a letter of credit somewhere else. They usually send it to France for some reason, and then a bank there has to send the money to you before you can send your goods to Cuba.

Mr. ROBERTS: Let's see. You've got your letter of credit, you've got your license to travel, you've got your license from the Commerce Department to export. I think you're good to go.

DAVIDSON: Now, doesn't the shipping company need to prove that Cuba will be the first port of call? Isn't there something about that?

Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah.

DAVIDSON: There are a lot of rules like this. Roberts says Cuba is far and away the most difficult country for Americans to trade with. It's far easier, he says, to trade with North Korea, even now, even after the U.N. embargo.

Roberts says these strange rules are the result of a messy compromise between Washington lawmakers loyal to pro-embargo Cuban Americans and those who advocate for pro-trade farmers. Neither side got everything it wants. The result of this particularly messy bit of democracy is that there is some trade with Cuba, but it is very difficult. Adam Davidson, NPR News.

LYDEN: To hear the first two parts of Adam Davidson's series, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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