Ready to Roll

HavanaThe port of Mariel, Cuba became famous in 1980 as a flashpoint in the decades-long Cold War between the United States and the Castro regime in Cuba.

Since the end of 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power and the U.S. cut off all ties with the island nation, Mariel’s harbor had been the departure point for desperate Cubans who chose to make the dangerous 90-mile journey to Florida in rickety boats rather than live under Castro’s brutal dictatorship.

But in 1980, what had been a trickle suddenly became a flood. A sharp downturn in the Cuban economy led to unrest that produced an unprecedented bid by more than 10,000 Cubans to gain asylum in the Peruvian embassy in Havana. The large and politically influential Cuban-American community in South Florida appealed directly to Castro to let them go. President Jimmy Carter joined the chorus.

Everyone expected Fidel to round up the dissidents and lock them away in one of his notorious prisons, but the wily and ruthless Communist boss had a few tricks up his uniform sleeve. The Cuban government stunned the world by abruptly announcing that anyone who wanted to leave was free to go; on April 15, 1980, what became known as the Mariel boatlift got underway.

Between April 15 and October 31, 1980, an estimated 125,000 Cubans sailed from Mariel to Florida. Unfortunately for President Carter, this feel-good saga of people yearning to breathe free quickly turned into a nightmare when the U.S. discovered that Castro had emptied his worst jails and mental wards and made sure the boats leaving Mariel were full of Cuba’s most dangerous felons. Think Al Pacino in Scarface (“Say hello to my little friend.”) Advantage Castro.

Fidel managed to turn a huge embarrassment for his regime into a humiliating debacle for Carter, who was forced to negotiate an end to the boatlift with the Cuban government.

But now it looks like Mariel’s story won’t end there. An historic agreement reached in December between President Obama and Fidel’s brother and successor as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro [with a big assist from Pope Francis, who started the dialogue], has paved the way for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. After being shuttered for 55 years, the American embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in Washington are set to reopen on Monday.

Obama’s opponents in Congress are threatening to block the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Cuba, but with the Pope and the tide of history on his side, the odds are very good that the president will prevail. The next shoe to drop undoubtedly will be the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo (followed by a surge in cigar sales on the mainland).

As this is being written, the port of Mariel is busy getting ready to become the vortex of an economic development tsunami a half-century in the making.

According to an AP report, Mariel has installed four massive Chinese-built offloading cranes on its 2,300-foot dock. Construction workers are scurrying about paving new roads, putting in a new rail line and building a convention center in the port. Workers recently finished clearing a lot that soon will be home to the first private companies to establish operations in a special 11,000-acre economic zone Cuba has created in Mariel as a magnet for foreign investment. The Cuban government estimates the project eventually will create more than 70,000 new jobs.

Since January, six companies (including two from Mexico, two from Belgium and one from Spain) have received approvals to set up shop in the Mariel zone. The newcomers include players from the food, chemicals and logistics sectors, with a total investment estimated at $50 million. Operations are scheduled to begin in 2016. American businesses, anticipating the lifting of the embargo, already are knocking on Mariel’s door: according to reports, Cleber LLC, an Alabama-based tractor assembly producer, plans to build a plant in Mariel and has applied for a special license from the U.S. Treasury.

Located about 30 miles from Havana, Mariel apparently aims to supersede the capital as Cuba’s premier port: a dredging operation is underway to deepen to harbor to 59 feet, which would enable Mariel to receive huge Post-Panamax container vessels sailing through the expanded Panama Canal. [Havana’s port cannot be deepened because of an existing auto tunnel.]

Meanwhile, car collectors from the U.S. are invading Havana to bid on vintage vehicles from another epoch that industrious Cubans have managed to keep rolling decades after GM stopped making the parts for them.

Near the top of our bucket list is taking a spin down the Garden State Parkway in a chrome-laden, metallic lime green-painted ’57 Chevy convertible with a 350 Rocket V8 engine, sans seat belts and emission controls. This baby comes equipped with something called an ashtray, where we’ll park a fresh hand-rolled Monte Cristo #5.

Yes officer, we promise to keep the rum secured in the trunk until we reach the Jersey Shore.