A long-planned trip aimed at strengthening the city's ties with Cuba has pulled New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell out of town this week.
Cantrell and a group of 35 business and political leaders, including City Councilman Jay H. Banks, left Tuesday on a six-day trip to Cuba, the first international trip by the mayor since she took office in May.
The itinerary includes meetings with economic development officials, tours of the country's ports and historic excursions in Havana, the capital of the socialist country.
In a phone interview from Cuba, Cantrell said the visit is aimed at reassuring Cubans that restoring once-close ties between New Orleans and the island nation is still a goal worth pursuing, despite a decision by President Donald Trump to reverse engagement policies begun during the Obama administration.
“Having this delegation come really solidifies and strengthens relationships with them that can live on beyond this current federal administration,” Cantrell said.
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Previous New Orleans mayors have often not announced out-of-town trips, typically leaving deputies in place for meetings and other city business.
Still, Louisiana's legislative session begins Monday, and with the Cantrell administration waist-deep in negotiations aimed at redirecting hotel tax dollars and other funding to the city's infrastructure, the window for reaching an agreement on the issue is narrowing by the day.
Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell dismissed any notion that the mayor’s absence would affect delicate discussions with the tourism industry over the distribution of tax dollars and greater funding for the Sewerage & Water Board.
He said Cantrell is in “active, daily communication” with her chief of staff, John Pourciau, who is representing the administration in those talks.
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The trip was planned in October and will cost the city at least $20,160, according to the administration and Banks' office.
An itinerary said the group would tour old Havana, which turns 500 this year, and visit the Africa House Museum, which depicts Cuba’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade. Cantrell said visiting the museum could help suggest how New Orleans’ African-American Museum can improve its efforts.
The group was also to visit the Mariel Port Special Economic Development Zone, a port that trip planners described as “ideally situated to handle U.S. cargoes when the U.S. trade embargo is eventually lifted.”
The mayor said the trip also can provide insight into Cuba’s strong education and health care systems, which she said have thrived under strategies that could be mimicked in New Orleans.
Romi Gonzalez, chairman of New Orleans’ International Cuba Society, said it’s important for the city to foster those ties, given the potential for more trade opportunities with the country should U.S.-Cuban relations improve.
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“You have to keep the relationship warm, and we (in Louisiana) have done a lot of that,” he said.
The U.S. and Cuba have had a fraught relationship since 1959, when Fidel Castro overthrew a U.S.-backed dictatorship and established a socialist state with close ties to the Soviet Union.
Since 1963, a U.S. trade embargo has banned exporting merchandise to the island, though that embargo was softened in 2001 to make exceptions for humanitarian or agricultural reasons.
Cantrell is just the latest in a string of New Orleans mayors and Louisiana politicians to visit the island nation. Louisiana leads the U.S. in exports to Cuba, and many of its citizens have immigrated here over the decades.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who in 2005 became the first Louisiana governor to travel to Cuba since the Castro revolution, signed an agreement for Cubans to spend $15 million on Louisiana products.
In 2016, Gov. John Bel Edwards traveled there to sign mostly ceremonial agreements for increased trade if and when the U.S. embargo should be lifted entirely.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors went later that year to talk trade. Even Mayor Ray Nagin went to Cuba at the end of his term, though that trip supposedly focused on hurricane preparedness, not trade relations, and was criticized by the Office of the Inspector General as a junket with no obvious purpose.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is scheduled to travel to Cuba next week as part of a trade mission to the Caribbean island nation.
While Landrieu would at times issue press releases when he was traveling domestically or abroad, word of his trips would often come only through his or others' social media pages, if at all. If asked, his staff explained the trips' costs and purposes. An official's public schedule is also a public record, under state law, and may be requested.
Cantrell said her delegation intends to document its stay in the country and tell the public about lessons that can be applied in New Orleans.
“We want to come up with an agreement in the next six weeks where we can work collaboratively ... on those areas of education and health and even economic development,” Cantrell said, noting that Cuba has high literacy and life expectancy rates.
According to documents provided by the city, joining Cantrell on the trip are Banks and his wife Artelia Bennett Banks, state Sen. Wesley Bishop and Cantrell’s executive counsel, Clifton Davis.
Jarvis Lewis, Banks' chief of staff, said Banks' trip cost the city about $4,700 and his wife paid her own way. Lewis said Banks' council district includes much of the Port of New Orleans and his attendance was aimed at fostering trade ties with Cuba.
If Banks used his council credit card to fund his trip, the expenditures must be documented and provided publicly, per council policy.
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Also in the delegation are Xavier University President C. Reynold Verret, Quentin Messer of the New Orleans Business Alliance, city Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno and Cantrell’s executive office director, Amy Rodenberger, among others, the documents showed.
The cost for Cantrell and her staffers totaled about $15,460.
The trip was planned well before officials moved in February to lower the speeds that trigger camera tickets in the city, which has sparked controversy in recent days. That change occurred Feb. 4 but was not announced until this week, after unsuspecting drivers slapped with tickets complained.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson was part of the trip to Cuba. A Twitter post by Peterson said she was in New Orleans on Thursday.