HAVANA -- It was more photo opportunity than hard sell, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told trade leaders here Monday he looked forward to the United States lifting its Cuba embargo, normalizing relations and allowing businesses to tap a market that's been off limits for half a century.
In a whirlwind, primarily ceremonial visit, Cuomo and more than 20 New York politicians, university officials and businesspeople met with Cuban foreign affairs and foreign trade officials, as well as a Catholic cardinal, to promote trade. Though they were to spend just 26 hours on the island, Cuomo said it was important to "plant a flag in the ground," saying New York would be an eager trading partner.
"We believe this is going to be a dramatic change that is going to be to the benefit of the people of Cuba as well as the people of the United States," Cuomo said in prepared remarks with Marilu B'Hamel, North American director of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment.
"Long-term, we are looking forward to the embargo being lifted legally, by Congress, so we can normalize relations," Cuomo said.
B'Hamel said the Cuban government "highly appreciates the interest you are showing."
Cuomo is traveling with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), and Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), along with officials from MasterCard, JetBlue, pharmaceutical companies and agricultural companies.
"Change is in the air. You can feel it," Klein said after a walking tour of Old Havana.
The New Yorkers will not meet with Cuban President Raul Castro nor his brother, former President Fidel Castro.
The governor began the trip at the Hotel Nacional with Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Cuba's director-general of foreign affairs. Later, he had a working lunch with Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz, minister of trade and foreign investments. Later, he planned to meet Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino of the Archdiocese of Havana.
Cuomo favors whirlwind trips. Last year, he traveled to Israel, but was on the ground only about 28 hours. He flew to Puerto Rico and back in a day for a political gathering. He maintained that the short trip to Cuba is still important.
"It's about showing up," Cuomo said earlier in the day.
Later, he added: "You're not going to be here one day and consummate a business transaction."
Cuomo hadn't been scheduled to be the first American governor to visit after President Barack Obama announced in December the easing of relations with Cuba. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was set to go in March, but backed out when that state's auditor died. Nixon's wife led the mission.
In a lighter moment in Old Havana, Cuomo, a muscle car enthusiast, met with Julio Alvarez, whose pink 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air named Lola was spotless outside -- but contained a four-cylinder Toyota diesel engine under the hood. Alvarez, who runs a business called Nostaglia Cars that ferries tourists around Havana, said he couldn't get old Chevy parts. Besides, the Toyota engine is better on fuel, he said through a translator.
Alvarez's ingenuity wowed Cuomo. "Did you see that?" Cuomo said, calling Heastie over to peer at the engine together. "They put in a Toyota engine because it's more economical on gas. Her name is Lola. Isn't that romantic?"