Florida-Cuba ferry plans stuck in U.S. “black hole”

Nearly two years after applying for a license to run a ferry between Port Everglades and Cuba, a Fort Lauderdale company still awaits government approval, Doreen Hemlock reports in The Sun Sentinel.

Havana Ferry Partners wonders why it can’t get the go-ahead, when the Obama administration has authorized about a dozen U.S. airports to offer more charter flight to Cuba.

“Are they just burying this in a file?,” asked Leonard Moecklin Sr., Havana Ferry’s managing partner.

At least three more companies are eyeing Cuba ferry services through travel licenses allowed as exceptions to Washington’s 50-year-old embargo against the communist-led island. Orlando’s United Caribbean Lines and Paris’ Unishipping applied years back. Balearia, the Spanish company that operates a new Port Everglades-Bahamas ferry, is interested.

The U.S. Treasury office that oversees the embargo does not comment on specific licenses, an official wrote in an e-mail.

Havana Ferry is so frustrated that it’s pushing for one-time permission to carry passengers to Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit scheduled for March 26-28.

The company first sought a license for Cuba ferry service in 2010. Its plan: to operate a ship that can hold 500 to 600 passengers and their luggage and later, to haul freight and maybe vehicles.

For now, passengers would be mostly Cuban-Americans, who are allowed by the Obama administration to visit family on the island whenever they wish. About 400,000 Cuban-Americans visited last year on authorized charter flights from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and a handful of other U.S. cities, operators say.

Ferry companies had high hopes for approvals last year, when Treasury let Fort Lauderdale and other airports offer Cuba charter flights.

U.S. elections have made chances more remote this year. Approval of new U.S. business could alienate conservative Cuban-American voters who want to tighten the embargo, executives said.

“In an election year, that company has a better chance of joining Newt Gingrich’s colony on the moon,” said John Kavulich, senior adviser to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based group that helps companies interested in business with the Caribbean island.

United Caribbean Lines has turned its focus to starting ferry service between Tampa and Cancun, Mexico, assuming Washington won’t act on new Cuba business in 2012, said founder Bruce Nierenberg.

“They’re afraid of this becoming a political hot potato in South Florida,” Nierenberg said from Orlando. “If the Democrats win, we’ll likely see a continuing development of trade and travel with Cuba over time. But if the Republicans get in, who knows? They could cancel new charters and new people-to-people exchanges” that permit more U.S. civic groups to visit with Cuban citizens, he said.

Broward County leaders from the mayor to port officials have backed requests for Cuba flights and ferries, hoping the area can cash in if Americans eventually travel freely to the island. In the 1950s, before Cuba’s government turned communist, ferries frequently plied Florida waters to Havana.

Beyond politics, ferry executives have heard at least one financial argument for Washington delays: costs to add U.S. Customs and Immigration staffing at seaports.

Havana Ferry has offered to pick up its share of the staffing tab and charge passengers a fee, likely $5 to $7 per ticket. The company expects to sell its ferry tickets at prices at least $50 cheaper than Florida-Cuba charter flights, which now start at around $400 round-trip, said Moecklin.

Once Washington gives the nod, there’s also the problem of getting Cuban permission to land ferries. That could take months or years too, executives said.

Moecklin first is looking for his U.S. license: “They’re giving us the black-hole treatment.”

For the original report go to http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/fl-cuba-ferry-business-20120212,0,7037791.story

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