HAVANA — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday boosted hopes that President Obama will visit Cuba before his term is up, telling an audience of Cuban and foreign reporters, “I’d be surprised if he didn’t visit.”
“This is a major legacy item for President Obama,” McAuliffe (D) said, wrapping up a trade mission that highlighted Virginia’s decade-long trading history with the communist nation as well as the recent U.S.-Cuban detente. “I believe the president should come and will come visit Cuba.”
The White House has said such a trip is under consideration, but it is by no means certain.
McAuliffe’s news conference took place at the Port of Mariel. Site of a massive 1980 exodus, the port represents Cuba’s desire to become a hub for international trade, thanks to a $1 billion modernization project largely bankrolled by Brazil.
At the port, about 25 miles west of Havana, officials from Mariel and the Port of Virginia formally pledged to explore ways to work together. The event concluded McAuliffe’s three-day trip here, the first by a sitting Virginia governor.
After wooing Cuban ministry officials, McAuliffe said he was heading home to play salesman to seemingly tougher customers: congressional Republicans opposed to fully normalizing relations with a Cold War adversary.
McAuliffe, who is vice chairman of the National Governors Association, said he would be in Washington on Thursday, pressing for a full end to what he called the United States’s “foolish” trade embargo against Cuba.
“I’ll be meeting with the speaker of the House of Representatives, the Senate majority leader, other members of the House and Senate, as well as administration officials,” he said. “And I will clearly use that opportunity to say, ‘2016 needs to be the year that we move our relationship forward, that we end this embargo, and we do the right thing for the citizens of the United States of America and the citizens of Cuba.’ ”
McAuliffe has made expanding and diversifying Virginia’s economy the chief focus of his administration, with foreign trade and investment a large part of that. Virginia Republicans who have vigorously fought some of his liberal policy goals, such as expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and tightening gun control, have been on board with his economic development efforts, though some take issue with particular projects.
“Cuban officials want us to come and do business,” the governor said Tuesday. “It is now up to us to do our work back in Washington to make sure our Virginia businesses can effectively do business here in Cuba.”
Just two deals were officially inked during McAuliffe’s Cuba trip — and both are nonbinding. The port agreement was a memorandum of understanding under which officials in Cuba and Virginia agreed to look for ways to cooperate. Both ports are eager to become major hubs for the huge “post-Panamax” ships that will be coming when the Panama Canal expansion project is completed.
The other completed deal was also a memorandum of understanding, in which Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Havana promised to explore academic exchanges and joint research projects.
Most of the 20 business leaders traveling with McAuliffe’s delegation were visiting Cuba for the first time, feeling out an entirely foreign market and harboring no illusions about striking gold on this trip. Several said they had made promising headway and expected to continue working toward deals of their own.
“We’ve had great meetings with folks who want to sell wood flooring, who want to open up a manufacturing facility here, who want to start agriculture farms here,” McAuliffe said. “This visit is to make it clear to every Cuban official and every Cuban citizen that the Commonwealth of Virginia wants to be your largest trading partner. . . . We have an opening. It’s now incumbent upon us in America to make sure we’re opening that door wide enough.”
Laura Vozzella, The Washington Post
January 5, 2016