Gubernatorial candidate supports Trump’s effort to renegotiate NAFTA, opposes trade with Cuba
PORT MANATEE — Orange juice from Brazil, bananas from Central America, vegetables from Mexico: Florida agriculture commissioner and GOP candidate for governor Adam Putnam heard about all the imports coming through Port Manatee on Thursday during a tour of the facility.
Putnam touted the port as a key economic driver for the state, even as he also voiced support for policies that could limit Port Manatee imports going forward.
President Donald Trump is pushing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which likely would make certain foreign imports less competitive and could curtail some shipments through ports such as Port Manatee.
“I’m very supportive of what President Trump’s doing to hold our trading partners’ feet to the fire on enforcing trade agreements,” Putnam said after the tour. “If you look at the shrinkage in the tomato industry in Florida right here in the Ruskin and Palmetto area, you can attribute much of that to a bad deal written through NAFTA.”
Port Manatee imports vegetables from Mexico, including tomatoes. The shipments make up about 2 percent of the port’s overall business. But Putnam said ports can still thrive, even if trade deals are rewritten to limit free trade.
“We’re bringing in a billion dollars worth of bananas,” Putnam said, referencing Port Manatee’s banana imports. “That’s good for Florida’s consumers, and it doesn’t affect Florida farmers one iota. You want an agreement that makes the most of every country’s competitive advantage.”
“Our competitive advantage is in citrus,” Putnam continued. “Costa Rica’s is in bananas. You can have vibrant profitable trade that is good for Florida farmers and Florida ports if you negotiate the right deal, and I’m proud of what the president’s doing to try to get us a better deal.”
Port Manatee is expecting to double its shipments of orange juice from Brazil, in part because Florida’s citrus industry is struggling, with Hurricane Irma adding to the industry’s misfortunes.
The increase in super tankers loaded with orange juice arriving at Port Manatee illustrates how one business’s misfortune can be another’s gain. Putnam, a citrus grower himself, said he’s committed to reviving Florida citrus production if he becomes governor, noting it’s an $8 billion industry.
Another area where Putnam’s position is at odds with increasing port activity is Cuba policy. Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras noted during the tour that Port Manatee is the closest American port to the Port of Mariel, Cuba’s main port for foreign shipments. That positions Port Manatee to benefit from opening up trade with Cuba, which was starting to happen under former President Barack Obama and has been halted by Trump.
Putnam said he supports a tougher stance toward Cuba, which has transitioned to a new leader who — for the first time in nearly 60 years — is not one of the Castro brothers. Putnam said the new Cuban leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is “a harder line leader.”
“I don’t envision taking a softer stance on that regime anytime in the near future,” Putnam said. “They have to earn it, and they’re moving backwards not forwards.”
During an interview after the tour, Putnam also touched on an appeals court decision Wednesday blocking an earlier court ruling that required Florida’s clemency board to revamp the state’s process for restoring felons’ voting rights. The decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allows the state to keep its current rights-restoration system while the case is on appeal.
Putnam serves on the clemency board as one of four statewide elected officials who make up the Florida Cabinet. He has expressed support for making it easier for nonviolent felons to get their voting rights restored, and he continued to do so Thursday. But he said it doesn’t make sense to change the system while the case is being appealed.
“The protocol, and out of respect to the judiciary, we should wait on them to make their final ruling,” Putnam said.
The Port Manatee tour was Putnam’s third visit to Sarasota or Manatee counties in the past three weeks. He was scheduled for a fundraiser at The Field Club, an exclusive private club along Roberts Bay, Thursday evening.