New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo heads high-profile trade mission to Cuba

(CNN)New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo landed Monday in Cuba, where he is leading one of the first American trade missions to the country since the U.S. shifted its policy toward the communist-governed country in December.

Cuomo, the first sitting governor to visit since the shift, arrived Monday at the head of a delegation of New York business leaders looking to pave the way for new commercial opportunities in the island nation that has been largely isolated by the U.S. over the last half-century.
President Barack Obama announced in December new policies that are slowly making it easier for some U.S. businesses -- notably in the food, travel and financial services industries -- to take their products and services to Cuba.
Cuomo said he's leading the delegation to ensure New York companies "are at the front of the line as the door opens" to the Cuban market. First in that line would be JetBlue, MasterCard, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the Chobani yogurt company whose representatives are accompanying Cuomo on the trip, along with several other companies.
    "These industry leaders will serve as ambassadors for all that New York State has to offer and will help form the foundation for a strong economic relationship between New York and Cuba as legal restrictions on trade are eased in the future," Cuomo said Sunday in a statement.
    To make that goal a reality, Cuomo and the New York business leaders will meet with Cuba's trade minister and the country's first Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is widely expected to succeed President Raul Castro.
    Cuomo is not scheduled to meet with Castro, but a face-to-face could still be in the works since those meetings are rarely announced ahead of time.
    For Cuban officials, the New York delegation is the latest in a flurry of elected officials and business representatives swarming the island in hopes of establishing or bolstering commercials ties in the wake of the U.S. shift -- and not just from the U.S. Representatives from other countries are also flocking to Cuba to keep their trade edge in Cuba as U.S. companies prepare to open the floodgates of U.S. goods.
    The New York Governor is not the first high-profile U.S. official to visit Cuba since Obama announced the shift in relations: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi led a delegation of Congressional Democrats to the island-nation in February, one month after Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, also a Democrat, led the first congressional delegation after Obama announced the changes.
    And this month Obama met with Castro during an international summit in Panama, the first official meeting between sitting U.S. and Cuban presidents in more than 50 years. Days later, Obama announced he is removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that will help further ease Cuba's isolation.
    Cuomo and the New York-based businesses hitting Cuba for a barely two-day swing are expected to stick to the trade aims of their mission and Cuomo has said he'll leave the foreign policy to the Obama administration -- whose diplomats have been scurrying between Washington and Havana to iron out details of normalized relations.
    And while the businesses joining Cuomo on the trip are eager to reap the benefits of trade with a country in need of a range of products and services, they'll need to wait for more positive signals from Congress.
    While Obama is able to lift some trade and travel restrictions and normalize diplomatic ties, the power to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba rests with Congress, where many Republicans remain firmly opposed to the shift in policy toward a government that remains accused of being a top human rights abuser and one of the few remaining Communist regimes in the world.
    For Cuomo, the trip is the first in a series of foreign trips planned for this year to promote commercial ties with New York companies. He has said he also plans to head up trade missions to Canada, China, Mexico, Israel and Italy.
    The trips could end up being not only a boon to New York businesses, but to Cuomo's political prospects. A rising star in the Democratic Party, Cuomo has long been rumored to be angling to run for national office and the foreign forays give Cuomo a chance to grab some headlines and bolster his foreign policy credentials.