Virginia didn’t wait to have a relationship with Cuba

José R. Cabañas, Cuba’s top diplomat in the United States, was in Richmond at the invitation of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who hopes to expand trade ties as U.S. relations with Cuba are normalized. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Cuba’s top diplomat in the United States traveled to Virginia’s capital this week amid new hope that sweeping changes in U.S.-Cuba policy will bring major business opportunities to the commonwealth if trade opens up with the island nation. José R. Cabañas, chief of the Cuban Interests Section, talked trade with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe; toured the state Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson; and spoke with business and educational groups seeking closer ties to the island nation.

The meeting was scheduled before President Obama announced plans last month to fund new diplomatic operations with Cuba and ease restrictions on commerce and banking. But state leaders said the potential for a new era of detente only strengthens Virginia’s competitive advantage.

José R. Cabañas, was joined at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, Todd Haymore, right. Also shown are the museum director, Alex Nyerges, left, Juan Jacomino, Cabañas’s press secretary. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)

“How fast it will go, I don’t know. How soon we have results, I don’t know,” Cabañas said over lunch this week with Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, Todd Haymore, who has led eight official trade missions to Havana. But he told Haymore, “You have been pioneering the effort on behalf of your authorities and your people in Virginia, and that has to pay off.”

Virginia has been trading with Cuba for more than a decade, after restrictions were loosened to allow exports of agricultural and medical products. Now the state is Cuba’s third-largest U.S. trading partner, behind Louisiana and Georgia, with annual agricultural sales of $40 million in 2013, the last year for which data was available.

With a foot firmly in the door, Virginia leaders say they are poised to make the most of expanded trade if Obama succeeds in ending the broader embargo. The effort remains a work in progress as Republican leaders in Congress explore ways to stop him.

In the meantime, Cabañas still had to get permission from the State Department before he could accept McAuliffe’s invitation to visit Richmond this week. Cuban diplomats in Washington cannot travel beyond the Capital Beltway without special approval, just as U.S. diplomats in Havana cannot leave that city without the go-ahead from Cuban authorities.

Four successive governors have courted Cuba, starting with now-Sen. Mark R. Warner (D). He wanted to lead a Virginia trade mission to the island when he took office in 2002, taking advantage of liberalization that became law when President Bill Clinton signed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. Advisers, worried about the optics of a potential sit-down with Fidel Castro, talked him out of it.

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