ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is heading to Havana, the first American governor to visit Cuba since the recent thaw in relations with the communist nation. Whether his trade mission generates anything more than headlines, however, remains to be seen.
The formal state visit on Monday and Tuesday is meant to foster greater ties between New York and Cuba. Cuomo will be joined by lawmakers and a group of business leaders for what he has called "a tremendous stepping stone" that will "help open the door to a new market for New York businesses."
Trade experts say New York could profit from improved relations with the Caribbean nation. New York farmers could export apples, powdered milk and other dairy products. Businesses could invest big in Cuba's developing information technology infrastructure. Hoteliers could build resorts to prepare for the increase in American tourists.
Any significant economic relationship with Cuba will take time, according to Joe Schoonmaker, the chairman of the New York District Export Council who works as a trade risk insurance broker. He predicted that tourism would be the first sector of the Cuban economy to open up and that it will be some time before Cuba is engaging in robust trade.
"It's not going to be like opening up China," he said. "As far as hundreds of millions of dollars of products going down to Cuba, I don't see it at this time. They're not going to be buying a lot of stuff."
Critics say Cuomo's visit legitimizes a dictatorship and is more about politics than exports. State Republican Chairman Ed Cox dismissed the trade mission as a political stunt "meant to bolster his national profile."
Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, whose mother is a Cuban exile, said any efforts to normalize relations must be accompanied by significant concessions from the Castro regime.
"I do not understand the purpose of this trade mission or see any concrete benefit for the state of New York," said Malliotakis, who represents portions of Staten Island and Brooklyn.
Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa said that greater engagement with Cuba will "do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values" than "continuing a policy of isolation which has failed for the last 50 years."
Those expected to join Cuomo on the trip include Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the CEOs of JetBlue and Chobani Greek Yogurt and executives from Pfizer, biopharmaceutical company Regeneron and a Finger Lakes dairy company.
The U.S. has been exporting limited amounts of food to Cuba for years. If New York does establish closer economic ties with Cuba, its first ambassadors may be two of its biggest farm products: dairy and apples. The state is one of the nation's top producers of both.
"There's potential there," said Steve Ammerman of the New York State Farm Bureau. "Any time we can create another outlet for our farm products and our farmers to make more money, that's a good thing for our entire ag economy in New York state."
As a center of global finance, New York City in particular has even more to gain from Cuba. Columbia University economics professor Graciela Chichilnisky said Cuomo and other U.S. leaders may want to consider financial arrangements to encourage trade and investment in Cuba.
In particular, she identified information technology and biotechnology as two industries that could be ripe for growth.
"They (Cuba) have at least the beginnings of some very promising developments," she said. "But there is nothing wrong with apples. I love apples."