5 things to know about Cuba from a Central New York businessman who was there

Aurelius, N.Y. — Kevin Ellis got the call while he was at Disney World with his family.

How’d he like to take a trip to Cuba with Gov. Andrew Cuomo? Ellis, CEO of Cayuga Milk Ingredients, didn’t hesitate.

“It took me just a couple of seconds to say yes,” he said. “I’m a curious individual anyway so I thought it would be good to at least go down and explore the opportunity. It would be a good way to get in on the ground floor.”

Ellis was one of several business leaders who traveled with Cuomo on a trade mission to Cuba earlier this month. Cayuga Milk is a milk processing company with a large plant west of Syracuse that produces a variety of products.

The Cuba trip was worthwhile for Ellis and he wants to return, even if only for vacation.

A major diplomatic thaw is underway between Cuba and the U.S. after decades of Cold War hostility and mistrust. Cuomo was the first governor to visit the nation since President Barack Obama announced efforts to normalize relations last year.

Though the trade trip lasted just 26 hours, here are a few things Ellis said he learned along the way.

There’s plenty of business there for Cayuga Milk: Ellis did some research before he left and learned the country is a major importer of skim milk powder. Cayuga Milk can produce about 50 million pounds of the stuff annually. Ellis is now getting ready to send samples of Cayuga Milk powder to Cuban contacts he met while on the trip. “I was very pleased,” he said. “I’m optimistic we can do business there.”

Communism is alive and well: The nation is filled with state-run industries and the economy is centrally planned. For Ellis, that meant there was one and only one company to meet with when it came to discussing imports of his milk powder: Alimport. He had a meeting with the CEO. The firm handles importing for the whole country, Ellis said.

Other American companies will benefit from improved relations too: Cuban leaders seem to have realized they need to attract foreign investment to thrive, Ellis said. He and the rest of the New York contingent visited a development park where Cuba will host foreign companies. He got the sense the country will move slowly though. Ellis said there’s room for American importers to work with Cuba as well. The country produces several high-quality agricultural products including coffee, avocados and other fruits, he said.

About those cars: Yes, most of the cars are from the 1950s, Ellis said. And the entire country seems almost frozen in time. The effects of U.S. sanctions are obvious. There’s plenty of poverty visible. “At the same time, the people have the appearance of being very happy. Very friendly,” Ellis said. “There’s not much crime. I traveled by myself all around Havana. It’s a very unique country.”

Don’t expect anything too fast: Numerous obstacles to doing business in Cuba remain. The U.S. trade embargo is still in place and as a result American companies can’t establish credit relationships there. That makes doing business nearly impossible. “I think there is something there for us,” he said. “It is going to take time.”

And in case you’re wondering, Ellis did pick up some cigars. As part of normalization efforts, American travelers can now bring back $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco products.

Turns out that doesn’t get you much in the cigar department. Cubans go for about $20 a piece, Ellis said.

By Kevin Tampone, syracuse.com

April 30, 2015

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