Cuba: JAXPORT’s next great export market?

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Last week, the Jacksonville/Northeast Florida Metropolitan Region released an export market assessment, which it characterized as a “critical step in the development of a regional export strategy”, which is part of the region’s participation in the Global Cities Initiative, a collaboration between JPMorgan Chase and the Brookings Institution. Jacksonville is one of eight metro areas in the “new export exchange network”.

According to Brad McDearman, Brookings fellow and director of global special projects, “Metro Jax is evaluating its standing in the export game so it can develop a global trade strategy that will adapt to rapidly changing dynamics.” Prime among those dynamics, quite possibly, is the untapped market of Cuba, with which President Obama moved to normalize relations last week.

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown recognizes the need to increase Jacksonville’s export market presence (which right now is in the bottom 10% of the top export markets in the country), and according to David Bauerlein of the Florida Times-Union, he sees Cuba as potentially important to that strategy.

“I think at the end of the day, when there is the ability to expand and compete in that market, we should,” Mayor Brown said.

This apparent focus on Cuba is consistent with the Mayor’s position (stated within the aforementioned export market assessment) that “Jacksonville is open for business”. In Mayor Brown’s reckoning, “there is literally a world of opportunity out there for our businesses – and we want to make the most of it for Jacksonville and northeast Florida”.

There is, to be sure, an economic utilitarian case to be made for trade with Cuba, and the export market strategy underscores its urgency. Jacksonville is “under-performing on exports”, according to the report, with “general lack of knowledge of foreign markets” inhibiting export performance – and the potential jobs that could result from maximization thereof.

The potential for significant trade with Cuba from JAXPORT definitely exists. Before the Castro regime took power, JAXPORT was Cuba’s main trading partner with the United States mainland, according to Action News Jax. JAXPORT spokesperson Nancy Rubin is bullish on the possibilities.

“It’s a natural flow, Jacksonville to the Caribbean to Puerto Rico and potentially back to Cuba”, Rubin told the local TV news operation, adding that “there’s no reason to believe that if normal relations were established… that we wouldn’t be operationally and geographically the most important to that trade again.”

The Mayor’s Office asserts that if Jacksonville managed to perform even at average levels related to exports, the enhanced performance would result in 44000 new jobs.

The potential of trade with Cuba is, of course, far from a sure thing. The President is encountering resistance from Republican officeholders in Florida and elsewhere as it relates to normalizing relations with Cuba. The qualms of Senator Marco Rubio are amply documented elsewhere; closer to home, longtime GOP Congressman Ander Crenshaw advises against normalization of relations with Cuba and the Castro regime.

“Freedom for 11 million Cubans who continue to live under tyranny must come first. [Normalization of relations] weakens our foreign policy. What this nation needs now is authority and strength… In no way do I support concessions to a communist dictatorship that has oppressed its people and works against the cause of liberty. Any change in relations with Cuba deserves full and open debate before Congress and the entirety of the American people, not a unilateral reversal of 50 years of foreign policy.”

Despite the fact that there is some distance between Republicans like Congressman Crenshaw and Democrats like Mayor Brown on Cuba policy, the two politicians have been strongly allied in issues relating to increasing Jacksonville’s economic performance, with JAXPORT traffic being a linchpin of the regional strategy.

The most prominent issue relating to JAXPORT locally this year has been the discussion of dredging to deepen the port to where it can accommodate bigger ships. Jacksonville is still trying to work out the approximately $150M needed to address its part of the obligation. Meanwhile, Congressman Crenshaw last week released a statement regarding the urgency of moving forward with dredging.

“The $3.15 million in the Omnibus to complete the Preconstruction, Engineering, and Design Phase (PED) of the St. Johns River dredging puts JAXPORT in the strongest position ever to begin construction,” Crenshaw said in a statement. “That’s a ‘win-win’ for economic growth and job creation and an achievement that would not be possible without passage of this legislation.”

The paradox for Crenshaw and other Florida Republicans will be whether cleaving to the Cold War policies related to Cuba is worth sacrificing potential jobs and failing to maximize the economic utility of the seemingly inevitable expansion of JAXPORT capabilities.

A.G. Gancarski has written a weekly column for Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly since 2003. His writings on politics, culture, and sport have appeared in the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, and the American Conservative. His radio and TV appearances include frequent contributions to WJCT-FM (Jacksonville’s Public Radio station); additionally, he has been a guest on Huff Post Live and the Savage Nation radio show. Gancarski can be reached at