HAVANA — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe sat down with a Cuban vice president and a Catholic cardinal Monday, while also snagging a rare tour of Fidel Castro’s Havana Hilton headquarters and taking the wheel of a pink-and-white 1956 Chevy named Lola.
McAuliffe (D) spent the second day of his three-day trade mission to Cuba mixing delicate politics and business with his free-wheeling sense of fun, whipping it all up like so many piña coladas in this city’s tourist-hotel blenders.
He met privately for more than an hour with Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, discussing expanded trade opportunities at a time of improving U.S.-Cuban relations.
In a formal meeting with Cuban Minister of Commerce and Foreign Investment Rodrigo Malmierca, McAuliffe talked up his long-standing opposition to the U.S. trade embargo targeting Cuba and his high-level Washington connections. When he flies out of Havana on Tuesday, McAuliffe noted, he will go directly to Washington for a National Governors Association gathering that includes a meeting at the White House.
The governor also helped strike a university exchange deal.
McAuliffe traveled to the island nation Sunday, at a moment of historic rapprochement between Cold War foes, to pitch Virginia products to the communist nation. The governor’s aggressive efforts to expand and diversify Virginia’s defense-heavy economy have taken him to the Middle East, Asia, India and Europe.
He became the fourth U.S. governor to visit Cuba in the 13 months since President Obama announced plans to begin normalizing relations with the country.
McAuliffe and his 30-member delegation spent most of Monday in a series of meetings with Cuban officials, trying to sell them on products ranging from modest roofing to high-end flooring.
He kicked off trade talks between Cuban officials and about 20 representatives of Virginia businesses who accompanied him on his trip. After that, he helped officials from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Havana strike a deal. They signed a memorandum of understanding intended to lead to academic exchange programs and research collaboration — a first for a Virginia university, although about two dozen other U.S. colleges already have exchange programs with Havana.
In between efforts to mend a long-frayed relationship, McAuliffe gleefully inflicted agita on his security detail. He was supposed to have been chauffeured to the cardinal’s office in the pink Chevy Bel Air. He commandeered it instead.
“He said, ‘Do you want to see my car?’ ” McAuliffe said, referring to his would-be chauffeur, Julio Alvarez. “I said, ‘No. I want to drive your car.’ ”
He drove it first to the former Hilton, then to the Havana cardinal’s office — but with a detour that included hanging a U-turn on the broad seaside Malecon, a landmark Cuban boulevard. He ended up winding down the narrow streets of Old Havana to arrive (a little late) at the office of the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino. McAuliffe allowed three U.S. journalists to trail him to the meeting and take his photograph with the cardinal, but the meeting itself was private.
Sunday had been devoted primarily to seeing a few sights and getting to know some of the private business people exploring the potential for trade. McAuliffe does not usually play tourist on trade missions. But he said he did a little touring Sunday for the sake of the larger-than-normal delegation accompanying him.
“Usually when I do trade missions, we generally don’t take anyone with us,” he said. “Our last trip was 135 meetings. I like to go, go, go, go — meeting, meeting, meeting, meeting. This one’s a little different because it’s a brand-new opportunity for folks.”
With a Cuban architect as a tour guide, McAuliffe and the delegation strolled past Old Havana bars where novelist Ernest Hemingway drank. They admired crumbling architectural gems, such as the 18th-century limestone palace that had been home to colonial governors.
“Lot bigger than the one I live in,” McAuliffe said. “The Spanish knew how to do it.”
Tour guide Ayleen Robainas pointed out a 1906 hat factory gutted down to its ornate facade, the rest of it too ruined to be saved. When she said it was being turned into a hotel, McAuliffe smelled an opportunity. He asked if any private partners would be involved.
No, Robainas said. The Cuban government has had lots of offers, she said, but it wants to do the hotel on its own.
Even so, McAuliffe believes the island is teeming with other opportunities. “I just think it’s a huge potential for us for many years to come,” he said afterward. “We’re coming here to plant the flag.”
McAuliffe found a way to promote his state as the tour wound down. He presented a bottle of Virginia wine to Warnel Lores, a Foreign Ministry official. The bottle — a 2014 Barboursville Vineyards viognier — was one of the state’s best, McAuliffe said.
“Excellent with lobster,” Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, piped up.
“Excellent with everything,” McAuliffe said. “You fire that up and think of Virginia. You forget those other 49 states.”
But even as the governor tried to sell the commonwealth, he found himself having to promote Virginia’s port to Virginians.
Over a dinner at the start of his three-day trade mission here, McAuliffe learned that when Virginia-based Smithfield Foods sells pork to this island nation, it ships the meat from Florida instead of Hampton Roads.
“You truck it all the way to Jacksonville?” McAuliffe asked the Smithfield vice president sitting across from him. “Dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Smithfield and Virginia port officials said the shipping arrangement was a problem of scale –- the state does not yet export enough to Cuba to make traveling to Virginia worthwhile for container ships bound for the island. McAuliffe was having none of it.
And so, in the patio restaurant of the famed hotel, when he should have been swooning over pork, black beans, good cigars and ocean breezes, the 72nd governor of Virginia was barking.
“I do not want to hear about one more Smithfield pork [product] shipping out of Jacksonville,” he continued loudly enough to be heard at the next table. “How do we fix that?”
Among the businesses participating in the trade mission are Perdue Agribusiness; Virginia Natural Beef; Forever Oceans, a high-tech, sustainable fish-farming outfit spun off from Lockheed Martin; T. Parker Host shipping; the roofing firm Onduline North America; and Mountain Lumber Co.
Participants from those firms paid their own way for the trip, at a price of about $3,000 per person. Taxpayers will pick up the tab for sending McAuliffe, first lady Dorothy McAuliffe and the state officials accompanying them. The administration says it has not yet calculated the cost.
Although most of the delegation arrived via charter flight, the Cuban government extended a special privilege to McAuliffe by allowing him to land his state plane at José Martí International Airport. Cuban Ambassador José R. Cabañas offered that favor to McAuliffe in a face-to-face meeting in Washington about two weeks ago, and the governor took it as a good sign.
“There’s a whole different feeling I can tell, even from last time I was here,” said McAuliffe, who traveled to Cuba in 2009 as a volunteer pitchman for Virginia apples and wine. “Much more open feeling, much more willingness to do business.”