When the charter flight shuttling Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a delegation of about 20 politicians and business leaders touches down Monday in Cuba, expect the opposite of a mini-vacation in the Caribbean.
Cuomo’s trip, which will be the first by any governor since the United States and Cuba began to normalize relations in December, will be a whirlwind roughly 24-hour trade mission billed as being about the economic potential between the fourth most-populous state and the island nation.
Its critics say timing may diminish its economic value. Supporters say being first in line is key, as is planting the seeds of a relationship with the country.
On Sunday, the governor’s office officially announced a full slate of delegates that ranges from the state’s top political figures to a major airline CEO and a yogurt company founder. He’ll also bring the State University System’s top official, the North Country Chamber of Commerce president and representatives from major pharmaceutical companies, among others.
In a statement, Cuomo said he wants New York to be “first out of the gate when it comes to building trade partnerships and establishing a strong position in this new market.”
That fits with the mission of Cuomo’s Global NY Initiative, a second-term plan to visit key trade partners (China, Mexico and the like). He has been adamant since news of his Cuban expedition came out in January that the trip is about opening New York up to global business. That means subjects like human rights aren’t expected to be topics of discussion between the governor and the Cuban officials he meets with. (Asked in January why he wouldn’t talk about human rights in Cuba when he did during a trip to Israel last year, he responded: “I didn’t say I won’t discuss it. It’s not the purpose of the trip. It’s not my portfolio.”)
A Cuomo aide said an itinerary was not publicly available Sunday.
Those who view the trip with a critical eye wonder if his timing is ideal for a trade mission of this significance, though. The Obama administration announced just last week that it would remove Cuba from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism, but that is yet to happen.
To be clear, the Cuomo administration has planned the trip for months and announced an April 20 visit in February.
“Much of this visit seems to be more focused on optics than transactions,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “It would be, if I use the governor’s own words, the first governor to go since before President Obama’s announcement (that the U.S. will normalize relations with Cuba). If that’s your goal, wouldn’t there be much greater value in being the first governor to walk into a re-established U.S. embassy in Havana?”
Politically, perhaps not.
“He’s always been lefty on social and symbolic issues like immigration and gay marriage and things like that,” said former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Demos think tank in New York City, who added that there isn’t much deep voter interest on the U.S.-Cuban relation issue. “His problem is he’s been right-leaning on economic issues. This doesn’t break any new ground. It’s a good thing, but it has almost no political significance.”
So if business truly is the endgame, could the trip be seen as a success when it ends Tuesday?
In a Sunday phone interview, Kavulich seemed positive about some of the trip’s business delegates, whose trips won’t be taxpayer-funded. Kavulich’s sentiment was reflected in a memo from the trade and economic council. The memo outlined how companies like Cayuga Milk Ingredients and JetBlue and entities like the Plattsburgh International Airport can export or provide services immediately.
The dairy industry, for example, exported to Cuba more than $81 million worth of powdered milk from 2004 to 2008 (it has not imported any since), according to the memo. On the airline side, JetBlue has been operating charter flights to Cuba since 2011, and Plattsburgh (a majority of that airport’s passengers are Canadians who already can travel to Cuba from Montreal, roughly an hour away) could bid for nonstop regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, according to the council.
While the trip’s schedule doesn’t leave much time to fully cement relationships between Cuba and those companies and, more broadly, Cuba and New York, it’s at least a start.
“This is developmental,” said Antonio C. Martinez II, head of the Cuba-Latin America Trade Group at Gotham Government Relations. “I don’t think it’s going to be necessarily definitive because Cuba is a place that carefully selects who it does business with. So you have to build a relationship, and you have to be in it for the long term. Cuba is not a place where they’re looking for one-shot deals.”
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