HAVANA (AP) – Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe began a trade mission to Cuba on Monday, expressing optimism about imminent changes in the U.S. relationship with the island but seeming less certain his trip would quickly generate new business for his state.
McAuliffe is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton and a longtime advocate of trade with Cuba. He is the fourth governor to visit Cuba since Dec. 17, 2014, when Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro declared an official end to one of the world's longest-running hostile relationships.
McAuliffe said he sees this year as key for U.S.-Cuba relations, saying the United States could allow freer travel to the island and end a ban on American businesses selling goods to the country on credit. Cuba has cited the credit limit as a prime reason it has sharply reduced purchases of food from states such as Virginia.
"I think 2016 is going to be a very big year. This is an important legacy item for President Obama," McAuliffe said. "I think this is the year we can get an awful lot of things done: normalization of relations, extending credit, open travel. These are all things I hope to accomplish this year. I think we can do it."
The White House said last week that Obama may travel to Cuba in March, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit this island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
While U.S.-Cuba detente has moved relatively quickly on the diplomatic front, efforts to increase business have been far slower with the United States' half-century-old trade embargo against the island still in force.
Despite an initial rush of American business enthusiasm, there have been few big U.S. business deals with Cuba. None of the four U.S. governors' trips have spawned significant commercial ties except for a relatively small sale of chicken parts by Arkansas poultry companies following a September visit by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
McAuliffe met with Cuba's top foreign trade official Monday morning and watched the heads of the University of Havana and Virginia Commonwealth University sign an agreement for academic cooperation and exchanges. The governor is expected to sign a similar memorandum of understanding Tuesday between the Port of Virginia and Cuba's Mariel port and free trade zone.
Later Monday, the governor planned to sit down with the vice president of the Council of Ministers, one of the country's highest-ranking officials.
McAuliffe is accompanied on his trip by executives from seven Virginia-based businesses, including Smithfield Food and Perdue Agribusiness, who met with Cuban government officials throughout Monday.
Cuban officials have used the meetings with visiting U.S. dignitaries to press for an end to the trade embargo. Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca and others emphasized the continuing difficulties of doing business with the U.S. despite Obama's loosening of trade limits.
McAuliffe deflected questions about whether he would leave Cuba with any new deals for Virginia businesses.
"We're here for a couple days of meetings, let me get through all the meetings," he said. "This is about building relationships for the future."