MIAMI (AP) — It was two weeks before Christmas, and Robinson Perez had bundles of gifts ready for his family in Cuba: A giant plastic Barbie doll and stuffed animals for his two daughters. For his pregnant sister, a wooden crib and baby clothes.
Perez could not go to Cuba for the holidays, so he chose the next best thing: Maritime shipping from Miami to Havana.
The freight service was launched in July by International Port Corp. to significant fanfare. It was the first direct maritime shipment of humanitarian goods between Miami and Havana since the U.S. economic embargo began against Fidel Castro's communist government five decades ago.
Thousands of customers began sending goods like medicine, toiletries and food at lower cost than by airplane. Others began sending big items that had been difficult to ship by air: washing machines, refrigerators and housing construction supplies.
Less than a year later, however, the service has ground to a halt, The Associated Press has learned. The ship had mechanical problems, the International Port Corp. was sued for allegedly not paying its bills and the Cuban government's package delivery company provided slow service. Customers like Perez were left frustrated as their packages took much longer than expected to arrive at their Cuban relatives' homes.
Candy canes and cookies that families shipped in December for Christmas and New Year's Day arrived closer to Valentine's Day.
"They said it would take much less time," Perez said. "But well, they had to wait."
The roots of the operation developed in in 2009 when President Barack Obama issued the first of several executive orders expanding travel and the flow of humanitarian goods between the U.S. and Cuba. Restrictions on how many times Cuban-Americans could travel to the island were lifted. The amount of money they could send in remittances was raised.
Larry Nussbaum, president of the International Port Corp., said he saw it as an opportunity to tap into a growing market.
"It was going to be a tremendous amount of volume, and the current providers were not organized properly," Nussbaum said.
The time appeared right. People who have arrived recently in the U.S. from Cuba tend to have strong family ties to the island, are more likely to send remittances and visit. And while Miami-based companies that sent packages to Cuba once were threatened or even bombed by anti-Castro groups, that violence has largely ended.
Cuban-Americans had already been sending parcels to their relatives on the island, but primarily through often illegal third-country routes and "mules" — people who travel to the island with packages they then deliver for a fee.
Nussbaum said he coordinated with the Coast Guard and Cuban authorities to charter a ship both sides could approve. They chose the Ana Cecilia, a medium-sized cargo ship painted red, white and blue — the colors of the U.S. and Cuban flags — owned by Miami Epic Shipping.
International Port Corp. also set up a contract with CubaPACK, Cuba's government-owned delivery service, to deliver packages in Havana within a week to 10 days, and to the rest of the island within 15 to 20.
On the ship's inaugural voyage in July, the sailing was not smooth. When the Ana Cecilia approached Havana's port, it wasn't initially allowed to dock because some paperwork hadn't been approved, International Port Corp. spokesman Leonardo Sanchez said. It docked the next morning.
At first, the deliveries arrived within the time CubaPACK had promised. But then it started to take longer. The weekly departures International Port had advertised from Miami to Havana were also scaled back to monthly trips.
Sanchez and Nussbaum said the delays are an infrastructure problem: More goods have been sent than Cuban authorities are able to quickly process. The Cubans use paper rather than computers to track and deliver the items.
"We've been frustrated ourselves with the service," Nussbaum said.
The Associated Press followed the Christmas packages Perez sent from Miami to their arrival and delivery in Havana.
The problems began early, not long after customers began arriving at a white terminal building to drop off their packages. Four days before the ship's scheduled departure on Dec. 12, Ramon Mesa, co-owner of Miami Epic Shipping, emailed Nussbaum demanding $250,679 in back payment for the chartering of the Ana Cecilia. He gave International Port three days to pay. If not, he would remove the boat from the dock.
Epic wasn't the only creditor demanding payment. The owner of the dock and warehouse facility, Marine Shaw Terminal, said the company owed him $30,000 in rent and has filed a lawsuit as well.
"The owner needed to come up with funds or the vessel wouldn't go," said Cliff Kornfield, an attorney for Mesa.
International Port officials gave a different explanation for the delayed departure. They said the Coast Guard had discovered a leak and the ship couldn't sail. Coast Guard documents show inspectors found seawater entering the ship in late November.
Mesa confirmed there had been a leak, but said he repaired it within a day.
"I had remedied it," Mesa said. "And if my boat couldn't go I could get another boat for them to take, if they had paid me in time."
Instead, the International Port opted to send the packages on two cargo planes. Sanchez said they departed the same day the ship was scheduled to go out. On the cargo planes, they were able to send large items as well.
In Cuba, Robinson's 20-year-old sister, Maipu Marin Lopez, was first told the items would arrive by Dec. 29. But that day came and went.
In mid-January, the first of the packages Robinson sent arrived. The others came in bit by bit. The final item, the frame of a baby crib, did not arrive until the first week of February — more than a month late, though still in time for the baby.
"The most important thing is the crib for the baby, and I was upset it had not arrived," she said.
Back in Miami, the dock where the Ana Cecilia once departed for Havana is now empty. The building where Robinson sent his packages from is closed. A sign advertising shipments to Cuba is gone.
Sanchez says they are no longer collecting packages at the terminal because they have set up new sites around the city.
In fact, court documents show the International Port was served an eviction complaint in January. Neil Ruben, an attorney for Shaw Marine Terminal, said International Port voluntarily vacated the property. A lawsuit claiming the company still owes rent dating back to October is winding through the courts. So is another filed by Epic Shipping.
Sanchez and Nussbaum said International Port dispute the claims in both lawsuits, though neither would go into detail.
"I assure you that everything is in order and this will all come out in the litigation," Nussbaum said.
Families are still sending packages by plane, but the dream of maritime shipping from Miami to Havana has, at least for the moment, sailed into thin air.
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.
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