Minnesota’s St. Paul Mayor amid 5-day exploration of Cuba

Feb 6, 2015 by

http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_27470718/mayor-amid-5-day-exploration-cuba

By Frederick Melo

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman arrived in Havana, Cuba, on Wednesday alongside several dozen business and civic leaders from the U.S. for a five-day cultural exchange.

The mayor’s trip features walking tours of open-air markets in Old Havana, a dinner with international business executives, lunch with foreign journalists and a briefing on U.S.-Cuban relations led by the former Cuban ambassador to the European Union.

Coleman’s travel expenses are being covered by the National League of Cities, which is funded by dues that cities pay and other sources of revenue. “These global connections benefit cities across the U.S., which is where NLC fits in,” said Tom Martin, a league spokesman. “Commerce is a part of it, and tourism fits in.” The trip was organized by Consensus Inc., a Los Angeles public relations firm.

On Friday, the group will visit a Cuban cigar factory to see how the country’s most famous export is made. The tour will be followed by a briefing on foreign investment law and Cuba’s economic reforms by economist and real estate expert Miguel Figueras.

On Saturday, the group will tour Ernest Hemingway’s home and an organic farm on the outskirts of Havana.

Coleman, who served last year as president of the National League of Cities, is representing the organization alongside Michael Kasperzak, a city council member from Mountain View, Calif.

My understanding is there’s probably about 40 people going, both public and private sector, and at least 10 of them are public officials,” Martin said.

“We are paying for Mayor Coleman’s participation.” St. Paul’s annual dues to the League would run about $15,000.

Cultural exchanges to Cuba are not unheard-of, and some 400,000 U.S. citizens — most of them Cuban-Americans — visit the country each year. Nevertheless, the mayor’s arrival coincides with thawing relations between the two countries.

President Barack Obama announced in December that the U.S. would work to re-instate diplomatic ties to Cuba, which had been severed in 1961. The U.S. trade embargo is unlikely to be lifted overnight, but organizations ranging from travel companies to Major League Baseball are looking to capitalize on the new relationship.

Tonya Tennessen, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said Coleman’s trip was planned before the Obama administration made its Dec. 17 announcement about renewed diplomatic ties. The new outlook from the White House bolsters the trip’s relevance, she said.

“In addition to the cultural significance of Cuba, the mayor is looking forward to opening doors that could lead to partnerships in business, commerce and tourism,” Tennessen said.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, recalled serving as chief of staff in the gubernatorial administration of Republican Tim Pawlenty alongside Gene Hugoson, an agricultural commissioner who made multiple trips to Cuba.

Hugoson, a farmer, saw deep similarities in Cuba’s mix of industry, education and sustainable farming practices. “Gene always came back saying, ‘this is Minnesota’s future,’ ” Kramer said.

Kramer said the mayor’s visit could yield more than sightseeing. “Talk about a widespread opportunity,” he said. “Business always gets done through relationships.”

Obama loosened restrictions on “purposeful” travel to Cuba in January, but U.S. residents must still justify their trip under one of 12 goals. General tourism visits are not allowed.

A bill introduced last week by Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont would end restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba entirely.

Martin said the National League of Cities hopes that Coleman’s trip “will support our work to foster city-to-city partnerships, and exchange ideas and best practices in our globalized world.”

With a focus on environmental sustainability, Coleman visited Sweden and Germany on behalf of the National League of Cities in 2012.

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.

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