Businesses say they made deals on trade trip to Cuba

HAVANA — A trade delegation led by New York’s governor left the island on a high note Tuesday, announcing several agreements struck with the Cubans and promising to return soon.

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro during the 24-hour trip, he huddled Tuesday with Cuba’s first vice president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, before departing. When asked if he raised Cuba’s human rights record with the vice president, Cuomo said they spoke about the fact that “disagreements” remain between the U.S. and Cuba but did not indicate whether he pressed Díaz-Canel on the government’s record.

“Those issues have to be worked through, and what we have learned is the best way to do that is through engagement as opposed (to) a policy of isolation,” Cuomo said at José Martí International Airport.

Members of the state assembly and nearly a dozen business leaders accompanied Cuomo on the trip, and most spent time with their counterparts on the island.

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Charles Phillips, chief executive of the Manhattan-based technology company Infor, said those meetings led to a new deal to sell the company’s health-care software to a company in Cuba. The Cuban company also will help sell Infor’s software to Latin American countries and help train students at a local university.

“We reached agreement at dinner last night over rice and beans,” Phillips said. “We were surprised and impressed with the level of technology and expertise they had in health-care technology.”

The face-to-face meetings also helped finalize an agreement between the Buffalo-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Cuban Center of Molecular Immunology. Cuban researchers have developed a possible vaccine for lung cancer, and Roswell Park’s chief executive Candace Johnson said they now will be able to work with the Cubans on that project.

“We’re very excited to take this to the U.S. to treat patients,” she said.

However, most of the trip was focused on establishing initial connections with Cuban officials to set the table for future deals.

Vice Chairman Walt Macnee of MasterCard said he had two meetings with Cuba’s central bank to start laying the groundwork for U.S.-issued cards to be used in Cuba. When President Obama announced Dec. 17 that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, he also said he would change federal rules to allow for credit and debit cards to be used on the island.

MasterCard and American Express have said they will allow their cards to be used in Cuba, but no U.S. bank has agreed to process the transactions. One of the biggest obstacles was Cuba’s inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, which restricted the ability of American banks and businesses to trade with the island.

After a four-month review from the U.S. State Department, Obama announced last week that he would remove Cuba from the list. Macnee said he discussed that change with the Cuban bankers and left his meetings confident that the cards soon will be used on the island.

“We feel really good about the conversations,” Macnee said. “Now we’re going to work with each of the (U.S.) banks individually and make some progress there. It’s still early days, but we’re on it.”

Chief Executive Kevin Ellis of Cayuga Milk Ingredients said he had similar experiences meeting with the government companies that import food. Cuba imports 21 million pounds of powdered milk each year, and he thinks the loosened restrictions on trading with Cuba could open the door for his Auburn-based company to expand into that market.

The main concern from the Cubans was a federal rule that requires Cuban companies to pay for any shipment in cash before the product leaves the United States, he said. Obama has indicated that he wants to change that requirement, and Ellis said that change is necessary before Cubans stop buying from other countries that grant them credit.

“If you put yourselves in the shoes of the Cuban buyers, if you are able to get credit terms from Canada and not the U.S., you would rather do business with” them, he said. “Now we can start working towards breaking down those barriers and establishing trade.”

Cuomo was the most forceful on the economic embargo that the U.S. maintains on the Cuba.

During a Tuesday morning tour of the new Port of Mariel, a $900 million project that Cubans hope will become the clearinghouse for larger container ships that will cross through the expanded Panama Canal, he heard just how underused the port remains because of the U.S. embargo.

If any foreign ship makes a port of call in a Cuban port, it is barred from docking in the United States for 180 days. That’s why the port still operates at a third of its capacity, Port Director Charles Baker told Cuomo.

The governor vowed to advocate for changes to such rules, and left Cuba promising a prompt return.

“New York has always had a special connection with Cuba, and Cuba has always had a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers,” Cuomo said. “So it is not about starting a friendship. It is about rekindling that friendship, and that is what we have done on this trip.”

By Alan Gomez, USA Today

April 21, 2015

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