By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
MARIEL, Cuba (AP) a¿¿ Life still moves slowly in this small, dusty town, where kids play freely in narrow streets nearly devoid of traffic and many people carry parasols to ward off the pounding tropical sun.
But that's all about to change. The town best known as the launch point of a mass maritime exodus to the U.S. in 1980 is being transformed into a huge, modern, $900 million port and special commercial zone.
The island nation's Communist authorities expect Mariel to become a center for foreign investment. It could also position Cuba to take advantage of a trade boom if the U.S. ever lifts its 51-year embargo and starts sending container ships south a¿¿ something investors have been waiting for, in vain, for years. Others suspect the port's impact on Cuba may be more modest, reflecting the country's long-stagnant economy.
"The Port of Mariel could ... contribute to a revival of Cuban foreign trade, more so if there are improvements in relations with the United States," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, an economist and lecturer at the University of Denver.
Plans to overhaul the Port of Mariel began in 2009 when officials determined the country's main harbor in Havana is too shallow for bigger, deeper-draft "post-Panamax" vessels, which starting in 2015 will begin crossing through an expanded Panama Canal and carry an increasing share of regional cargo. An automobile tunnel that traverses the mouth of Havana's bay makes it impossible to make the waterway deeper.
Even with the U.S. embargo, the ability of Mariel to take in deeper-draft ships will let Cuba keep pace with global shipping innovations and accommodate more cargo. Hopes are equally high for the adjacent, 180-square-mile (465-square-kilometer) industrial park and special development zone, which officially launched Nov. 1.
During a recent visit by The Associated Press, orange-clad, helmeted workers in the port zone were building what looked like a large warehouse while trucks arrived loaded with construction materials. Hundreds of yards (meters) of docks appeared nearly completed, ahead of the port's expected opening early next year.