In Cuba, New York Governor Cuomo seeks to open doors to trade

In Cuba, New York Governor Cuomo seeks to open doors to trade

Alexandre Meneghini

HAVANA (Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo met senior Cuban officials in Havana on Monday as the head of a high-powered business delegation looking to take advantage of President Barack Obama's easing of restrictions with the Communist-led island.

Cuomo, a Democrat, is the first governor to visit Cuba since a December announcement by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro that they would restore diplomatic relations and work to normalize trade and travel ties after more than a half century of hostility and confrontation.

Cuomo termed the agreement "courageous" in opening remarks to a business conference and said, "We want to do everything we can to help."

Cuomo was joined by top executives from JetBlue Airways Corp., Pfizer Inc. and MasterCard Inc., who were among 18 business leaders and academics on the trip.

Cuomo said the purpose of his visit was to see what can be done now and look to the future should full trade be restored.

He also mixed in some fun, drinking a mojito at the Hotel Nacional, while Cuban officials gave him what he said was his first ever Cuban cigar. Cuomo joked that if he rushed through his speech, he would have time to smoke it.

As part of a deal hammered out over 18 months of secret talks, the Obama administration has loosened travel regulations, opened the door to some financial services, trade in information technology, aviation and other sectors and announced it will eliminate Cuba from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But the trade embargo remains largely in place and can be lifted only by the Republican-controlled Congress.

Marilu B'Hamel, director of North American affairs at the foreign trade and investment ministry, said the visit was welcomed and would "serve to explore the potential between our two countries and support the progress of normalization."

MasterCard says it is ready to provide service in Cuba and JetBlue has said it wants to begin direct commercial flights to Cuba.

Neither has reached a deal with Cuban officials, but by Monday afternoon the delegation was in initial talks with Cubans from biotechnology, aviation, banking and tourism after lunching with the Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca.

"Our meeting with Minister Malmierca was very exciting and informative," Cuomo said. "There is much hope for the future."

The delegation was due to meet with Cuban First Vice-President Miguel Diaz Canal on Monday and Cuomo is scheduled to hold a news conference on Tuesday before departing.

Ten previous U.S. governors have visited Cuba since 1999 but none since 2010, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

(Reporting by Marc Frannk; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Alan Crosby)