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Cleveland Extends Economic Olive Branch To Cuba Amid Diplomatic Tensions

Brian Bull

In the midst of escalating diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, the city of Cleveland is trying to build business ties with the island nation.

In Havana last Friday, representatives from the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority signed a non-binding "memorandum of understanding" with the country's maritime authority aimed at laying the groundwork for potential future trade. 

"The money is starting to flow down there," said Darrell McNair, chairman of the Port Authority. "You don't want to be last to the party in a situation like this."

In recent years, ports in other statesincluding Virginia, Alabama, Texas and Louisianahave reached similar agreements. Cleveland, he said, is the first northern port city to do so.

Although the agreement is not a guarantee that Cuba will do business with the Port of Cleveland, McNair said it puts the city in an advantageous position" if the U.S. ever lifts its embargo on Cuban trade.

"I think it's unlikely given the current political environment," said Gustavo Arnavat, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba have flared in recent weeks, with the State Department accusing the Cuban government of failing to protect U.S. diplomats from a series of mysterious "health attacks." And in June, President Trump tightened restrictions on Cuba that President Obama had previously loosened.

On the other hand, Arnavat said there is as slight possibility that relations could thaw under Trump. 

"The President is a 'dealmaker,'" Arnavat said. "If the Cubans come to the president with the right deal, the president may in fact turn around and encourage the Congress to get rid of the embargo."

If that day ever comes, said McNair, cities that made efforts to establish a relationship with Cuba will have an advantage.

"You just don't wake and decide to do business with this country and expect it to happen overnight," he said.

Before the signing of the memorandum of understanding last week, he said, the Port Authority had been in talks with Cuban economic officials for over a year.

Despite the current diplomatic friction, McNair was upbeat about prospects for warming U.S.-Cuba relations. 

"We're not politicians," he said. "We do believe there will be an opening in the trade relationship."

Adrian Ma is a business reporter and recovering law clerk for ideastream in Cleveland. Since making the switch from law to journalism, he's reported on how New York's helicopter tour industry is driving residents nuts, why competition is heating up among Ohio realtors, and the controlled-chaos of economist speed-dating. Previously, he was a producer at WNYC News. His work has also aired on NPR's Planet Money, and Marketplace. In 2017, the Association of Independents in Radio designated him a New Voices Scholar, an award recognizing new talent in public media. Some years ago, he worked in a ramen shop.