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George Ryan: Cuba relations will open markets

December 18, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) — Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who made a historic trip to Cuba 15 years ago, says restoring diplomatic relations with the island nation 90 miles off coast of Florida will open new markets for the United States.

Ryan visited Cuba in 1999 and met with then-President Fidel Castro. It was the first visit by a U.S. governor to Cuba since Castro’s 1959 revolution. Ryan on Wednesday praised President Barack Obama’s shift in U.S.-Cuba policy that was seconded by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana.

“It’s not an easy political thing to do, and I’m sure the President is going to find that out, but I want to congratulate him on his efforts here today,” Ryan said.

Obama’s announcement was accompanied by the exchange of imprisoned spies and the celebratory release of American Alan Gross, a government contract worker who had been held in Cuba for five years. Ryan said he wrote to Fidel Castro earlier this year urging Gross’ release. He said he never heard back, but is glad Gross is free.

Ryan called the delegation he led to Cuba a highlight of his Illinois governorship. Ryan served one term, from 1999 to 2003. He later served time in federal prison after being convicted on corruption charges.

“Everybody’s going to be clamoring to go down there and do business,” Ryan said. “That’s the thing I tried to sell when I went down there.”

The Illinois delegation delivered more than $1 million in humanitarian aid during the 1999 trip and the Cuban government allowed an ailing 7-year-old Cuban boy to accompany Ryan back to the U.S. for treatment.

Peoria-based heavy equipment-maker Caterpillar Inc. believes the change could lead to business opportunities.

“At one level, everything that Caterpillar makes in the United States is needed in Cuba,” said Bill Lane, the company’s global government affairs director. “Cuba doesn’t need to rebuild its infrastructure, it needs to build an infrastructure.”

And U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, said diplomatic relations with Cuba could also mean more opportunities for Illinois’ agriculture industry to sell food and other products in Cuba.

But fellow Republican Aaron Schock of Peoria said the decision makes other countries wonder what the United States stands for.

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