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US cargo ship docks in Havana, first in 50 years

Saturday, July 14, 2012    

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HAVANA, Cuba (AFP) A cargo vessel carrying humanitarian aid docked at Havana Bay yesterday with the first maritime shipment from Miami in the United States to Cuba in half a century.

The Ana Cecilia sailed in shortly after 7:00 am, carrying food, medicine and clothing, as well as medical equipment such as orthopedic mattresses and electric wheelchairs.

Shipper International Port Corporation (IPC) hopes to make this a weekly service between the US and Cuba, which have been at ideological odds for years, with a ship leaving Miami every Wednesday for the 16-hour trip to Havana.

"This is so wonderful," said company spokesman Leonardo Sanchez-Adega, after the ship finally docked following a delay of several hours due to an error in customs paperwork submitted to the Cuban authorities.

IPC was granted a special permit from the US, which has imposed a trade embargo on the Communist-run island since 1962.

The company's clients include charitable, religious and humanitarian groups, as well as relatives of people living in Cuba, which the United States considers humanitarian aid from family members and sanctioned groups. The Ana Cecilia, a small cargo ship, can hold 16 containers of supplies.

US President Barack Obama has somewhat eased the embargo, lifting some travel restrictions and allowing Cuban Americans to send unlimited remittances back home, a significant move as 80 percent of the estimated 1.5 million members of the Cuban diaspora live in the US.

But the increased flexibility has its limits, especially since the arrest of US contractor Alan Gross, arrested in December 2009 for distributing laptops and communications equipment to members of Cuba's small Jewish community under a US State Department contract.

In Florida, the Cuban community had a "positive" response to the shipments, according to IPC. There was no official response from Cuba.

Opposition economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, however, hailed the new shipments.

"I welcome this initiative and hope we will continue on a path to normalise ties between Cuba and the US," he told AFP.

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