New York governor leads the Cuba Gold Rush


When the United States opened the door for agricultural tradewith Cuba more than a decade ago, Ward Dobbins went to Havana to market his Red Delicious apples, fresh from upstate New York. Working out of a tiny trade-show booth, he signed a contract to do business with the Cubans, and even caught a glimpse of Fidel Castro.

“I decided I wanted to be the first, and we were the first company to ship a load of apples after the embargo was lifted,” said Mr. Dobbins, owner of United Apple Sales in Lyndonville, N.Y., a village near Lake Erie.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and a delegation of New York business owners and politicians will land in Havana with a similar ambition: to take advantage of the latest and by far the most significant easing of relations between the United States and Cuba in 50 years.

The governor’s plane will touch down in Havana around noon and, in a whirlwind 26-hour trip, he and his trade delegation will meet with Cuban officials and businesses, an effort Mr. Cuomo hopes will pave the way for New York companies to expand their reach to Cuba.

President Obama in December announced plans to ease diplomatic relations with Cuba and said last week that he intended to remove the country from the American government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism, a move that will open the door for American banks to operate in Cuba. Big-name American companies have been quick to announce plans to do business in Cuba, Netflix and Amazon among them.

However, it will take an act of Congress to repeal the trade embargo with Cuba, and most likely years for Cuba and the United States to decide what shape their relationship will take. “This is going to be a process and not a fast process at that,” said Stefan M. Selig, the Commerce Department’s undersecretary for international trade.

Cuba has approximately 11.3 million residents, about the same population as Ohio. Mr. Selig offered other cautionary notes: The average Cuban makes about $250 a year; Cuba imports $6.5 billion worth of goods a year, which is what the United States sells in a week to Canada; and Cuba remains a state-controlled economy, with three-quarters of the labor force working for the state.

Put all that together, and add in Cuba’s “widely underinvested infrastructure,” and Mr. Selig said “the opportunity is somewhat limited in the near term, and there will be challenges to U.S. companies when they do get access to the market.”

Still, Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, hopes to gain an advantage by being the first United States governor to travel to the island state since Mr. Obama’s announcement. While the Cuomo administration has not said with whom it would be meeting in Cuba, about 20 people from 10 different entities will be on his trade mission, including officials from JetBlue Airways, the Plattsburgh International Airport, Pfizer and MasterCard. The trip will also have some yogurt star power: Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani, is scheduled to go.

More than a dozen reporters will be accompanying the governor for the event.

Kevin J. Ellis, the chief executive of Cayuga Milk Ingredients, is flying with the governor. He is hoping to find new markets for powdered milk, and plans to meet with distributors while in Cuba. “This to me is an exploration trip,” he said.

Alan Levitt, vice president of communications for the United States Dairy Export Council, said that the United States sold $69 million of nonfat dry milk to Cuba from 2004 to 2006, but that there had been virtually nothing since then because of a change in the financing rules.

The Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo is sending two representatives, including its chief executive, Candace S. Johnson. She has long followed the work Cuban scientists have done on immunology. Doctors from Roswell have been to Cuba in recent years to meet with doctors there, but the travel arrangements can be cumbersome and the restrictions limiting.

Roswell has brought in vaccines from Cuba but cannot try them on humans without approval from the Food and Drug Administration, something Ms. Johnson says is virtually impossible to get. She hopes this trip will pave the way for more personnel and information exchanges with doctors in Cuba and will make it easier for things like FDA approval.

Currently, Louisiana, Florida and Virginia are among the top states exporting to Cuba. Virginia ships many products to Cuba, including soybeans, soy milk and apples.

Todd P. Haymore, secretary of agriculture and forestry for Virginia, said he believed this existing relationship would give his state a head start as trade barriers between the countries fall. “We have worked very hard to build the relationship since 2007,” he said, “so we are in a good spot when the pipeline opens up.”

Mr. Haymore has been to Cuba nine times since 2007, and Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, has announced plans to travel to the island later this year.

The first New York trade mission to Cuba was in April 2008. Kirby Jones, who for years has advised companies on doing business in Cuba, says he was on that trade mission. He said New York is not currently high on the list of states doing trade with Cuba, but he applauded Mr. Cuomo’s decision to visit.

“He is waving the flag and tooting the horn and saying ‘New York is ready to work,’ and that is what governors do,” he said.

As for Mr. Dobbins, the apple producer, his foray into Cuba was short-lived. Undercut by red tape and competitors with cheaper, lower-quality products, he sold only one container of produce, roughly 113,000 apples. He plans to revisit his company’s relationship with Cuba in coming months, but says he is realistic that it will take some time for conditions to change.

Others are more optimistic. Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, traveled to Cuba this month on a fact-finding mission, and says the country is abuzz about the prospect of stronger ties with the United States.

“Many of the young people are really excited,” he recalled. “They want a McDonald’s.”

NY Times