At the entrance to Havana harbor stands an eight-foot statue of French naval hero Pierre Le Moyne, dressed in an elegant overcoat, a sword at his side. Le Moyne is known for founding the capital of French Louisiana in 1702. Havana was a lifeline to the city near the Gulf of Mexico, supplying the settlers with building materials, weapons, and even French women who transited through Cuba. LeMoyne died in Havana and was buried there.
An identical statue now graces the waterfront of the city LeMoyne founded: Mobile, in today’s Alabama. The bronze figure looks toward its Cuba counterpart just over 600 miles away across the Gulf. Leaders of Mobile had the replica made and installed in 2002 to honor the city’s three centuries of ties with Cuba, a relationship that continues strong to this day.
Mobile might not come first to mind when considering U.S.-Cuba relations, but there are plenty of reasons to put Alabama’s only seaport city high on the list––even baseball.
For 315 years, the port city—alternately French, Spanish, British, and finally American—has been trading with Cuba. In the past it imported sugar, tobacco, coffee, and rum while sending down rice, cotton, timber, and paper. Today, Mobile ships tons of U.S. chicken to Cuba monthly, ranking among the top U.S. export hubs to the island.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, Mobile was the first U.S. town to develop a Sister City link with the communist island. Since 1993, its nonprofit Society Mobile-La Habana has been organizing trips, conferences and other exchanges, long before engagement with Cuba became popular.
Perhaps most startling, Mobile stands out as the place that gave Cuba its beloved sport of baseball. Two Cuban brothers who attended Mobile’s Spring Hill College learned the sport and returned home to start Havana’s first baseball team some 150 years ago, building an enduring cultural bond.
To be sure, Mobile lacks the big Cuban-American community that ensures links to the island for other U.S. cities such as Miami. But that may be an advantage for the coastal town that combines the Old South charm of Savannah with the French-Spanish flair of New Orleans.
“We don’t have the political biases in our community that some of the southern cities in Florida have in their population,” said William S. “Sandy” Stimpson, Mobile’s mayor since 2013. When it comes to Cuba, Mobile is pragmatic. Business-minded Stimpson even visited Cuba last year, looking to expand trade.
Indeed, it was the Alabama State Port Authority that filled the void this winter when Florida seaports decided not to sign cooperation agreements with Cuba amid new political pressures. Port leaders from Mobile traveled to Florida to sign their own cooperation pact with Cuban port officials who were visiting Tampa. “With that signing, we made a very public statement that we’re very much in favor of trade with Cuba,” said James K. Lyons, CEO of the state agency based in Mobile. The city’s decades-long engagement encouraged Alabama’s governor and state legislature to recently call for lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, a move that state officials said would help boost Alabama and U.S. business.
“Mobile really stepped out before anyone else did in trying to develop the Cuba relationship,” said attorney Grey Redditt Jr., president of the Society Mobile-La Habana and a frequent visitor to the island. “As a result, the Cubans view Mobile as a close friend, more so than South Florida cities where there is a lot of pushback for opening up.”
Why Mobile (and Alabama) back Cuba trade
It might seem strange that Alabama, a Republican-led state, would be so keen to engage with Cuba. But Alabama counts agriculture among its largest industries, and that’s where Cuba offers opportunity now.
Since Congress passed an embargo waiver in 2000 allowing sales of U.S. farm goods to Cuba, poultry has been the biggest U.S. export to the island. Alabama is second in the nation in producing broiler chickens after Georgia, and Mobile is key to shipping that chicken to Cuba. The city’s port lately has been sending one or two ships of frozen chicken parts to Cuba per month, typically with some 4,500 tons per load. Shipments neared 50,000 tons last year, U.S. government data shows.
“From the standpoint of costs, it’s a benefit for Cuba to ship poultry from Mobile. It’s a straight shot from Alabama” near U.S. chicken production sites and roughly a day-and-a-half sail away, said Dan Autrey, chief of staff and legal adviser at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. Autrey has visited Cuba three times on official missions, twice with the state’s agriculture commissioner.
Still, some shipments now go first to Kingston, Jamaica, and then to Cuba’s Mariel port. Volume remains limited by U.S. rules that require Cuba to pay cash in advance for farm products. If sales to Cuba were allowed on credit, “we could potentially triple the business that we’re doing,” said Lyons, eager to establish regularly scheduled service directly to Cuba’s leading port.
Financing for sales would be welcomed by the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, which says their industry provides a $15 billion impact and 86,000 jobs in the state. “When we visit Cuba, Commerce and Agriculture people always tell us, ‘Other countries sell us on credit. You don’t,’” said Ray Hilburn, an associate director, who has visited the island twice. “We want to increase demand for our product.”
Beyond poultry: Manufacturing, tourism and imports
Of course, Mobile has lots more to offer Cuba than chicken. The coastal city of some 200,000 people is part of a metro area of nearly 1 million residents, Alabama’s third largest. While its port and trade have long been its main economic engine, the city has recently been attracting foreign investment to major manufacturing operations, including the first U.S. aircraft assembly plant by Europe’s Airbus, a $1 billion-plus steel mill owned by Luxembourg’s ArcelorMittal, and shipbuilding by Australian contractor Austal. Just Austal’s naval shipyard alone employs more than 4,000 people.
“We’re the only place in North America where big airplanes and ships are being built. There are ship-builders around, and Seattle and Charleston build airplanes, but no one else is doing both,” said Mayor Stimpson proudly.
City leaders have been reaching out to manufacturers touting relatively low costs, favorable taxes, and connectivity by sea, rail, air, and road. Another major offering: long runways and ample land at the former U.S. Air Force Base at Brookley, where Airbus now builds its A320s and flies them out.
“It’s an old Air Force base, under-utilized for the past 30 or 40 years, and Airbus is bringing new life to it,” said Mark McVay, director of finance and administration at the Mobile Airport Authority. “We’re creating an aerospace cluster, starting with Airbus service providers.”
Mobile is also hot on expanding tourism, highlighting its restored colonial fort, antebellum homes, and fun-packed Mardi Gras celebrations that began years before the famous fetes in New Orleans. The not-to-be-missed Mobile Carnival Museum displays over-the-top gowns and jewels worn by local Mardi Gras nobility.
Recently, Mobile scored big in tourism when cruise giant Carnival Cruise Line added cruises to Mexico. “What we would love to see is a cruise to Cuba,” said Redditt of the Society Mobile-La Habana.
Longer term, there’s also potential for two-way trade with Cuba. Mobile could bring in Cuban nickel, possibly for its stainless-steel mill, and import Cuba’s tropical fruits and vegetables. It could send down Alabama-made cars, steel, and building materials that include lumber produced from nearby forests. “I like to say we have more pine trees than people in Alabama,” a state of nearly 5 million residents, joked port leader Lyons.
In the past decade, Alabama has emerged as one of the top five U.S. states for producing cars, hosting large factories for Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes Benz, and Toyota. Autos now rank as the state’s No. 1 export by value. They helped push total state exports beyond $20 billion for the first time in 2016, a whopping 48 percent jump from 2006 levels.
“We built more than one million cars in Alabama last year, and with some modifications at the port, I think we’d certainly have the ability to export transport vehicles to Cuba,” said Mayor Stimpson.
Today, Cuba represents just a tiny fraction of Mobile’s port activity. With more than $850 million in improvements since 2000, the seaport now handles more than 54 million tons of yearly cargo at its public and private terminals, including petroleum products bound for refineries. That hefty volume typically ranks the seaport among the top dozen or so nationwide by tonnage.
But when two-way trade with Cuba starts, Mobile could have an edge over U.S. rivals. “We’ve built relations over the years with different people in Cuba that put Mobile in a favorable light, so if there’s contestable cargo where it can go to this port or that port, maybe Mobile could garner a position of some favor,” Lyons told Cuba Trade.
Small business interest: From construction services to farm equipment and mangoes
Owners of small businesses in Mobile see Cuban opportunities too, including Jerry Lathan, who founded The Lathan Company 36 years ago. His firm started out doing roofing and branched out to historic restoration. It now employs about 40 people and brings in $8 million-plus a year, he said.
Lathan sits on the Alabama state council of Engage Cuba, a group lobbying for greater ties with the island. He sees engagement helping draw Cuba into the global commercial system.
“Being involved with trade that promotes agricultural goods and helps relations with our port is a better path than abject isolationism,” said Lathan, a long-time Republican leader in Alabama. “Staring contests usually don’t get you anywhere. Engagement is different than surrender. We need to find a way to make a difference and change.”
Lathan recently visited the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo in eastern Cuba to explore a possible roofing contract and wondered when Washington will let U.S. contractors work in the rest of the island. “They sell the greatest T-shirt on the base,” Lathan recalled. “It says: Guantanamo: Close but No Cigar.”
Already building Cuba ties is The Woerner Companies, a fourth-generation family farming business based near Mobile that employs some 300 people, operates nationwide, and brings in more than $40 million a year in revenues. The family started out farming potatoes and other vegetables in Alabama, but now mainly grows and sells turf grass for homes and real-estate developments. It’s also building a factory to dehydrate fruits and vegetables into flour and, maybe later, for healthy snacks.
Christina Woerner McInnis first visited Cuba several years ago with an Alabama agricultural exchange mission and got hooked, returning several times since. “You get where everyone has their set ways of doing things. It’s real hard to change. But when you go to Cuba, you get a totally fresh perspective,” she said. That includes growing food without chemicals and using limited machinery, often producing fruits little known in Alabama, like the creamy tropical mamey. “They have ingenuity to think outside the box. It’s all natural,” she said. “And they are willing to share everything they do.”
To reciprocate the hospitality, the Woerners welcomed a Cuban group from the Indio Hatuey Research station in Cuba’s Matanzas province. The Cubans were impressed by U.S.-made spriggers and harvesters that together plant, cut and harvest grass turf.
Through an affiliate called Gulfwise Commerce, Woerner received a license last year from the U.S. Department of Commerce to export the machinery to Cuba at a price of around $100,000, a first for U.S. agriculture, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
But the shipment from Mobile has yet to be completed, partly because of problems with logistics, said McInnis. One headache: Ships bound from the U.S. to Cuba typically come back empty, because nearly all imports from Cuba are off-limits under terms of the U.S. embargo.
McInnis hopes face-to-face talks with Cubans during her visit in November for the annual International Trade Fair in Havana can help speed the delivery. “I’d love to see a bilateral agricultural relationship,” she said. While Alabama sells Cuba poultry and other farm goods, “we’d like to ship back organic produce and other farm products for our supply. That would be a win-win for both countries.” She’s already received requests from buyers for organic mango powder that could potentially be made from Cuban fruit.
Think long-term and differentiate yourself
Attorneys at Maynard Cooper & Gale, one of Alabama’s largest law firms, understand such complexities. Their clients exploring Cuba business include not only agriculture companies but also a shipyard looking to open a repair operation in Mariel, Indian-American hoteliers interested in Cuba’s booming hospitality sector, as well as suppliers of infrastructure services and consumer goods.
Alan Enslen, who leads the firm’s international division from Birmingham, advises clients to think long-term on Cuba—but build relations now. “It doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes tailoring, so that you are offering something unique” not already provided by Europeans or others in Cuba, he said. Still, one big obstacle, especially for smaller companies, remains “the regulatory unknown. Obviously, no one wants to invest significant time and resources on something on potentially shaky ground,” said Enslen.
At Woerner, McInnis definitely takes the long view, focusing on what Cuba and the U.S. have in common. She laughs out loud about the time her uncle Eddie met a farmer in Cuba who looked like his double and was equally hyperactive. “They said, “Mi hermano,” [My brother],” recalled McInnis, as she snapped a photograph of the burly, gray-haired, mustached duo. “It was the funniest picture you ever did see.”
Long-term interest in Cuba extends even to the state’s visionary business leader David G. Bronner, who took the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) from a $500 million fund in 1973 to top $34 billion today, partly by investing in real estate from golf resorts to office buildings. In Mobile, the pension fund built the RSA Battle House Tower, described as the tallest building on the U.S. Gulf Coast outside Houston. The spired tower rising 745 feet takes its name from the adjacent, historic Battle House hotel, which was elegantly renovated as part of the complex opened in 2007. Montgomery-based RSA also owns or developed other key buildings and hotels in greater Mobile.
“I’m totally fascinated by Cuba. It’s really the island of the whole Caribbean that everyone looks to,” Bronner said. He visited with former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow, who spearheaded the city’s push for Cuba engagement starting in the 1990s and remains a friend. Bronner has seen how Cuba is opening its market and would like Washington to let U.S. business in. “There will be big changes in the next decade. Everyone in the world recognizes Cuba. We’re the last country that doesn’t,” said Bronner.
Building links through exchanges in education, research, and art
With the embargo limiting U.S. business, many exchanges with Cuba now focus on education and culture. Especially active is the long-established University of Alabama, whose Cuba Initiative kicked off in 2002 and grew into a Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship. The Center has sent more than 100 faculty members and at least 80 students to Cuba, some for repeated visits, from its base in Tuscaloosa in west-central Alabama. It’s been organizing semester-abroad programs in Cuba since 2009, some involving classes at the University of Havana, said co-director Steve Miller, who first visited in 2002.
In Mobile, the Center has been helping with varied Cuba projects, recently linking local curators with artists in Cuba for an upcoming exhibit at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center. “Cuba is our closest foreign country. We don’t operate in a vacuum, and we need to connect with people near us,” said curator Amanda Solley, 30, a painter who visited Havana in April to help organize the Mobile show.
Solley first met artists from the island at the University of Alabama’s third annual Cuba Week held last October in Tuscaloosa. The event featured 25 visiting Cubans in varied disciplines. “We had a whole crew come up from Mobile. It was so exciting,” said Miller, calling Mobile Alabama’s most engaged city on Cuba affairs.
The newer University of South Alabama, based in Mobile and founded in 1963, also is revving up on Cuba, looking for exchanges in fields from eco-tourism to coastal engineering. “The strongest collaboration we have now is in health sciences, in diabetes research with the University of Havana,” said Lynne Chronister, vice president for research and economic development.
Those growing links have stimulated Cuba-themed business inside Mobile too. Restauranteur Bob Baumhower, a former football player with the University of Alabama and the Miami Dolphins, is planning to open a Cuban-style piano bar in downtown Mobile soon. The speak-easy will be a tribute to the El Floridita bar in Havana frequented by American novelist Ernest Hemingway.
Baumhower fell in love with all things Cuban during his time in Miami, partly by reading Hemingway. He’s since visited the island three times with Alabama missions—once with a chef who prepared such Alabama specialties as shrimp and grits, as well as chicken with white barbecue sauce.
“The more people hear about relations with Cuba, the more they’ll come out,” said Baumhower of the speakeasy, which will join 11 other locales in his Aloha Hospitality Group. His Dauphin’s restaurant on the 34th floor of the Battle House Tower already offers such Cuban cuisine as mojo-marinated meats and flan dessert.
Building on travel ties forged before the Revolution
Mobile’s Cuba buzz seems natural to the city’s elders, such as Sally Tonsmeire Morrissette, a vivacious 82-year-old active with the carnival museum. She was queen of the Mobile Carnival Association in 1955.
Morrissette recalls that her parents were in Cuba when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, and how as a child, she was frightened and wanted them home sooner. Her husband partied with friends in Havana before the couple’s 1955 wedding. “They had such a good time the groomsmen went back the next year,” said Morrissette. When a friend visited Cuba this spring, she found it a welcome revival of the travel link.
Still, there’s no direct commercial flights from Mobile to Cuba at present. The city airport is regional, not international, and travelers now fly to Cuba through Tampa, Houston or other airports. That may change at some point, however.
Both Brookley Airport, where Airbus is located, and Mobile Regional Airport, which serves the flying public, have runways longer than 9,000 feet that can handle the largest international aircraft, including direct flights to Cuba. Mobile Regional is currently served by American, Delta and United, which all offer Cuba flights from other U.S. cities.
“We are always looking for routes that the citizens are interested in,” says airport director McVay. “If Cuba is on the radar and something the citizens are interested in, then it’s something we are interested in,” he says, though “ultimately it’s up to the airlines to make that decision.”
Direct air links would help Cuban-Americans visiting their homeland, including Maria Conchita Mendez, who leads trade development with Latin America for Alabama’s port authority. A long-time advocate for engagement with Cuba and frequent visitor to the island for decades, she left work at Florida ports 14 years ago to help Mobile build ties with Cuba and other Latin American nations.
Some call Mendez the resident ambassador for Mobile’s small Cuban-American community. On a recent weekday, she paid a visit to 77-year-old Josefina Pacheco, who came from the rural Cuban town of Manicaragua in Villa Clara province 17 years ago. Pacheco is happy in Mobile, preferring its slower pace to noisier, more urban Miami or Tampa. “Everyone greets me here. They say, “Hola Josefina,” she said, with fresh coffee on the stove. “It’s so friendly and peaceful.”
Committed to Cuba for the long-run, beyond Trump
President Donald Trump’s announcement this June that he will tighten U.S. restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba hasn’t chilled Mobile’s decades-long push for engagement with the island.
“I think people are cautiously optimistic,” said Bill Sisson, president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, who visited Cuba last year with the mayor and other local leaders. “They are watching and waiting for normalization of relations, so they can open up trade – the same with the entire state. They are eager to participate in the economic development of Cuba.”
Like the Le Moyne, depicted in statues on the waterfronts of Mobile and Havana, the city’s leaders want to build two-way ties with Cuba.
“The biggest challenge for Cuba will be competition, if they do open up,” says Sisson. “Every port city is going to want to do business there. But we have had this long-term relationship and connectivity.”
J.P. Faber contributed to this report.