MARIEL, Cuba (AP) — The leaders of Cuba and Brazil on Monday inaugurated the first phase of a port overhaul project near Havana that is billed as a cornerstone of Cuba's economic future.
Brazil has contributed $802 million in financing for the Mariel project to date and will invest $290 million more in the development of an adjacent industrial park and special economic zone, according to President Dilma Rousseff.
"Brazil is proud to partner with Cuba in this which is the first container-terminal port in the Caribbean with the capacity to integrate into the inter-oceanic logistical chain," Rousseff said.
Cuban President Raul Castro underlined the economic importance of Mariel, which will replace Havana as the island's shipping hub. The new port will be able to accommodate deeper-drafting "post-Panamax" ships that will begin crossing the Panama Canal once an expansion project there is completed in the next year or so.
Mariel "will be the principal point of entry and exit for Cuba's exterior commerce," Castro said.
The two leaders spoke at a ceremony in Mariel, 28 miles (45 kilometers) west of the Cuban capital, as officials from 33 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean were gathering in Havana for a regional summit. The presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Haiti also attended the ceremony.
The sleepy town of Mariel is best known as the launch point for a mass exodus in 1980, when about 125,000 Cubans left in a span of six months, in what came to be known as the Mariel Boatlift.
Cuba hopes the port and economic zone will lure foreign investment. They could also position the Communist-run nation to handle an expected trade boom if the United States someday lifts its 52-year-old economic embargo.