MARIEL, Cuba - Far from the crumbling buildings in Havana, Kevin Ellis got a glimpse of the Cuban future. At least how Cuban officials envision it.
Here, on the bay where Russian missiles were unloaded during the Cuban missile crisis, officials are transforming the landscape into a deepwater port capable of handling shipping containers and a railroad hub. Cuban officials insisted that a New York trade delegation led by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo get a look before departing the island.
Ellis, an upstate New York milk businessman, saw the potential to send the Cubans tons of powdered milk -- if the United States normalizes relations with Cuba and allows it to buy on credit.OpinionEditorial: Re-engagement is best way to change CubaMore coverageCommentary and analysis about U.S.-Cuban relations
"There is an incredible amount of opportunity here," Ellis, chief executive of Cayuga Milk Ingredients in Auburn, said Tuesday as he stood among the giant lifts. "It's very encouraging."
Ellis was one of more than 20 politicians, educators and business leaders who traveled with Cuomo for a 27-hour trip to promote New York business after President Barack Obama announced his intention to begin normalizing relations with Cuba.
During the whirlwind tour, the chief executive of a Buffalo hospital announced a handshake deal to do clinical trials using a Cuban-developed lung cancer vaccine, and a Manhattan software company said it was exploring a deal with a Cuban software counterpart to integrate health care billing.
"I didn't even know they existed" before the trade trip, Charles Phillips, chief executive of Infor, said of deSoft, the Cuban software company. He said deSoft already operates in dozens of other countries, especially in Latin America, but has had "challenges integrating accounting with health care."
"We have that product," Phillips said. He said Infor would seek federal approval to work out a business deal in Cuba.
Roswell Park chief executive Candace Johnson said the Buffalo hospital and cancer treatment center has been exchanging students and research with Cuba's Center for Molecular Immunology since 2011. They've been talking about the vaccine -- which she said has been shown to significantly extend life expectancy for lung cancer patients -- but it took the need for "face-to-face finalization."
"It takes time to build trust and we [now] have a personal relationship with these folks," Johnson said. She hopes to begin clinical trials in Buffalo in, at best, eight months.
The governor said the mission was more about "planting a flag" than scoring a business deal, though he said he was surprised at the current pace to privatize some Cuban business. The New Yorkers met with Cuban trade officials Monday; Cuomo met individually with Cuban Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel. They all toured the Mariel port Tuesday.
The industrial area appears a bit otherworldly; the 43-square-acre "Mad Max" scene of cleared land is scraped down to the dirt in many parcels. There are few trees and many empty fields, along with a railroad spur that leads off to the horizon.
There are no nearby houses; the few people around are port workers and security details. Cuban officials call it a "special development zone."
The Mariel hub, with four gigantic container lifts, was inaugurated in January 2014, said Charles Baker, an Englishman who is the general manager of the shipping terminal. He sees it a potentially lucrative midway station for ships coming from Europe and headed for Latin America and other destinations.
Ellis said the Mariel port can handle Cayuga's business physically. But it hinges on the United States changing business conditions.
"The U.S. government requires 100 percent payment in advance," Ellis said. "Put yourself in the shoes of the Cuban buyers. If you can get credit from Canada, you'd much rather do business with Canada."
Ellis said he received useful ingredient specifications for the type of milk powder Cuba wants to import. His company already has a foreign presence, shipping milk powder to Egypt, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Typically, powdered milk is shipped in a container holding 18 or more metric tons; prices run $2,000 per metric ton or more. Currently, Cuba gets most of its powdered milk from Canada, France and New Zealand, he said, adding he believes Cayuga Milk could beat competitors' prices.