It may be a long time before anything truly productive happens, but with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s trip to Cuba last week, New York is opening the door to new and exciting economic possibilities. As the first governor to visit the island nation since President Obama moved to smooth relations in December, Cuomo simultaneously made a splash and did right by the state.
It won’t be easy to convert the trip into trade benefits, given the remaining governmental restrictions and Cuba’s antique infrastructure, but that didn’t stop leaders of big businesses from joining Cuomo on the trip. Those businesses included JetBlue, Pfizer, MasterCard and Chobani. Most intriguing for Western New York was the presence of Dr. Candace Johnson, CEO of Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute, who struck a deal with a Cuban research organization that could lead to clinical trials of a lung cancer vaccine.
The vaccine, which is injected, is already in use in Caribbean nations. Pending federal approval, it will be subjected to clinical trials here with hopes that it could be used in both the prevention and treatment of lung cancer, and perhaps other cancers as well. The study would be undertaken with Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology.
Politics and bureaucracy are likely to delay the project. Congress needs to act to formally lift trade restrictions, and many members of Congress oppose that change, even though they support trade with China and other repressive nations.
And while existing laws allowing for educational exchanges could clear the way for the clinical trial agreement, it may still be years before numerous federal agencies approve the necessary licenses. In addition, federal approval is needed if Roswell Park wants to bring a product into the United States from Cuba.
Still, the prospects are tantalizing. It’s not just the partnership between a Buffalo institution and a Cuban scientific organization – which is interesting enough – but the prospect of a vaccine to prevent cancer. There are a lot of “ifs” between last week’s agreement and the use of any such vaccine, but it would be indecent not to explore the possibility.
It was, in other regards, an interesting group of business leaders that accompanied Cuomo and Empire State Development chief Howard Zemsky on the whirlwind trip. JetBlue’s headquarters is in Queens. Chobani began its life in Central New York, and Greek yogurt has become a big industry in the state, including in Batavia. The possibilities for New York businesses are significant.
Other states have a head start. Louisiana, Virginia and Florida – a hotbed of anti-Castro sentiment – are among the top states exporting to Cuba. Leaders in Virginia, which has worked diligently over the past eight years to build relationships in Cuba, believe the state is well placed to benefit when expanded trade begins. It already sends soybeans, soy milk and apples to Cuba.
But if New York is not as far along as other states, it is at least getting in the game. It may be a long haul, but it is important to start.
It is true, as some critics have observed, that Cuba’s record on human rights and its stance on same-sex marriage are troubling, but the fact is, that hasn’t stopped us from trading with other countries with worse records. And, as Cuomo observed, the opportunity to bring about change in these areas is more likely to come from engagement than estrangement. This was a good step.