by James Poulos | March 26, 2016 9:24 am
Although they didn’t make the same headlines as President Obama, several members of California’s congressional delegation accompanied him on his historic visit to Cuba — underscoring the importance California officials and business put on the prospect of restored relations with the Communist country.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, was joined by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, along with Reps. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, Sam Farr, D-Carmel, Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.
The president’s move to normalize relations has been controversial, especially among Republicans, who have counted Cubans among their reliable supporters after they began fleeing the Castro regime in large numbers and settling in the U.S. But Cuban-American opinion on mending relations has shifted over time, with a gap opening up between younger and older generations.
California businesses have set their sights on Cuba, which has been able to access goods and services from European firms, but has yet to be opened to American ones. In a sign of their influence on California officials, the state’s two U.S. senators have begun a push to ensure that Golden State airports receive priority as Cuban markets open up.
“Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein advocated establishing nonstop flights from California to Cuba in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx,” the Sacramento Bee reported. “As part of the opening of diplomatic relations that has allowed Obama’s journey — the first by a sitting president in several decades — Cuba and the United States have agreed to begin allowing commercial air travel.”
In the letter, sent March 18, Feinstein and Boxer called it “crucial that all Americans have convenient access to Cuba, including the thousands of companies, businesses, and educational institutions that are clamoring for scheduled air service to Cuba. Direct service from California to Cuba will be an important step in ensuring this engagement.”
Cuba offers big California startups the opportunity to set up shop in a market that hasn’t yet been fully penetrated by the app economy. “Making the rounds in Havana this week were the chief executives of PayPal, which hopes to launch an online remittance service in Cuba, and Airbnb, which already offers 4,000 rental properties on the island,” as the Los Angeles Times reported.
But Silicon Valley has not established a monopoly over California business interest in the island. Agriculture wants in, too. Chris Rosander, who heads international market development for Sun-Maid Growers, told the Times he realized he could gain a big advantage by importing mangoes from Cuba instead of Thailand.
“Rosander, who says his mango export dreams are not feasible under current U.S. regulations, is now part of a U.S. agricultural group that is pushing Congress to end the trade embargo. ‘Real trade is only going to happen when Congress drops the embargo,’ he said,” as reported by the Times.
The thaw in relations hasn’t expunged all of the Cold War’s old ghosts, however. Stockton Democrat Rep. Jay McNerney, who was a passenger on an aircraft hijacked by a man allegedly living in Cuba, has demanded his extradition. Referencing his accomplices, McNerney noted that “these individuals killed a law enforcement officer. They hijacked a plane and put 150 people’s lives at risk, including my own. I think the one that’s remaining alive should return home and face justice. This is about as serious a set of crimes as you can possibly commit,” he told NPR.
Talk among the California delegation was not all business either. “Lowenthal said before leaving that it was the president’s trip, but he hoped for a chance to talk with Cubans about human rights and what humanitarian needs the country might have,” the Times reported:
“‘As we begin to expand our relationship, the Cubans have a responsibility. We want to establish these relationships, but there’s still not freedom of the press, freedom to dissent. Lots of people are in jail for speaking out,’ he said.”
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