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Cuomo visits Cuba with execs to push an end to embargo

by Freeman Klopott Bloomberg News | April 21, 2015 at 1:51 a.m.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that his trade mission to Cuba with executives from New York-based companies including Pfizer Inc. and MasterCard Inc. will pressure Congress to lift the embargo of the communist island nation.

Cuomo on Monday became the first U.S. governor to visit Cuba since President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, eased travel restrictions in January. While the president last week moved to take Cuba off the list of terror-sponsoring nations, ending the trade embargo, which is 54 years old, it would require an act of the Republican-controlled Congress.

The mission will help take the Cuba debate outside of Washington and illustrate the benefits of job creation and societal change that would come from lifting the embargo, Cuomo told reporters aboard the chartered JetBlue Airways Corp. flight. The airline's chief executive officer, Robin Hayes, is among those traveling with the governor.

"This is going to be a dramatic change that is going to benefit of the people of Cuba and also to the people of the United States," Cuomo said before a business roundtable at the Parque Central hotel in the historic section of Havana. "We will do everything we can to facilitate and expedite the process of that change."

Cuomo, 57, said he agrees with Obama that the best way to change Cuba is to engage with President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, whose 1959 revolution and seizure of property and interests owned by U.S. businesses led to the trade sanctions. By being the first, he said, New York companies will be best positioned to win business as restrictions ease.

While the governor's itinerary doesn't include a visit with either Castro, he was to meet with First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino on Monday.

The visit may also help Democrats make inroads among the influential Cuban population in the presidential swing state of Florida, where 29 of the 270 electoral votes need to capture the presidency will be up for grabs next year. The party has been seeking to capitalize on a demographic shift that's led more Cuban-Americans to favor ending the embargo. About 300,000 Cuban immigrants have arrived in the U.S. since 1995, and many want the chance to return to visit families and to send money.

While Cuban-Americans account for only 3.3 percent of the 54 million Hispanics in the U.S., two-thirds live in Florida, according to the Census Bureau. As recently as a decade ago, 64 percent of registered Cuban voters identified themselves as Republicans, compared with 47 percent in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington.

"Gov. Cuomo is showing great interest in leadership," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, Fla. "Even most Cuban-Americans say change is important here, and if he believes that, when he returns, he'll be able to help deliver that message."

In Cuba, the embargo is known as "the blockade," said Christopher Elias, a 31-year-old Cuban guide who accompanied the Albany press corps on the 30-minute ride from Jose Marti International Airport.

"Almost everyone in Cuba is pretty excited about re-engagement with America," said Elias, who described himself as a "new revolutionary."

Cuomo is also joined on the trip by MasterCard Vice Chairman Walt M. Macnee, Pfizer Inc. Chief Medical Officer Freda Lewis-Hall and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. CEO Leonard Schleifer.

Business on 04/21/2015

Print Headline: Cuomo visits Cuba with execs to push an end to embargo

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