Cuban officials and New York business executives are exploring ways for companies to do business on the communist-run island despite the longstanding U.S. embargo that makes most trade and investment illegal, Gov. Cuomo said Monday.
Cuomo is expected to return to Albany Tuesday after a visit that made him the first U.S. governor to visit Cuba since the recent thaw in relations with the communist nation. He met with Cuba's top officials for U.S. relations along with executives from Jetblue, Chobani Greek Yogurt, Pfizer and other New York-based companies.
Before a series of meetings between the executives and Cuban officials, Cuomo praised the decision by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro to re-establish diplomatic relations after a half-century, and move toward a broader normalization expected to include deeper trade ties.
"Like the people in Cuba, the people in New York and the United States are very excited about the courage that your president, Raul Castro, has shown, and the leadership that he has shown," Cuomo said. "We believe that this is going to be a dramatic change that is going to be to the benefit of the people of Cuba and also to the people of the United States."
Obama loosened the trade embargo early this year with a series of executive actions that allow easier U.S. travel to Cuba, more remittances to the island and, at least on paper, U.S. exports to support the island's relatively new private business sector.
Obama also moved to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror, removing a barrier to access to the global financial system. Cuban officials have been pushing Obama to go further with measures that could include more specific federal licenses for U.S. businesses to trade with Cuba in ways currently prohibited.
"The president of the United States has the ability to grant licenses to businesses so that businesses can actually start developing right now in select areas and those are areas that we want to pursue," Cuomo said.
Cuomo met with Josefina Vidal, Cuba's top negotiator in meetings over re-establishing diplomatic ties. He had meetings planned with officials from the Cuban government and Catholic Church.
At a business roundtable, Cuomo, who brought Yankees caps to give out as gifts, stressed his trip was about commercialism. He spoke about the Statue of Liberty, how the Big Apple is a place known for freedom, and discussed how his father argued in the 1990s to lift the embargo -- a policy local Cubans consider an impasse to them improving their way of life.
A tour guide working with Cuomo and the reporters with him pointed out a sign the bus passed on the way to events that, in Spanish, likened the embargo to genocide; the sign had a noose on it. The tour guide, whose first name is Christopher, explained most people don't have a lot of money in Cuba, and many have to work two or three jobs to feed their families.
Christopher said there was plenty of media coverage in Cuba leading up to Cuomo's visit, and the general feeling is that something huge is about to happen economically for the country; people are just waiting to see what that "something" is, he explained.
Cuomo was expected to visit Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the Archbishop of the Archdioceses of Havana, whom the governor referred to as "His Excellency," later Monday, and joked about looking forward to appreciating his first Cuban cigar.