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Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto works to smooth path for business ties with Cuba

| Thursday, May 28, 2015, 10:51 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto met with government ministers, leaders and organization presidents on his trip to Cuba this week, but said the best sign showed up during a moment of relaxation when a bird unloaded on him.

Peduto said he's been told it's supposed to bring good luck when that happens, and he hopes it means the trip will help open Cuba to Western Pennsylvania manufacturers if America lifts its trade embargo with the Caribbean nation.

“I ended up having a Montecristo No. 2 cigar, which is supposed to be one of the five best cigars in the world,” the mayor said. “I sat outside with the group and had a couple of mojitos with it, and as I sat outside under a tree, a bird pooped on me.

“Then I moved my chair to finish the rest of the cigar, and it pooped on me again somehow.”

Peduto traveled to Cuba on Sunday with eight representatives of local companies. He said his role was to secure meetings with government officials who aren't inclined to meet with business people. His daily schedule ran from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., he said. He returned to Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

Peduto said his administration did not announce the trip in advance on the advice of the FBI. He said agents expressed concern about his safety. The mayor traveled without a bodyguard.

“I didn't want to put anybody with the mission in jeopardy, so we decided to be safe and follow their advice,” he said.

Special Agent Greg Heeb of the FBI's Pittsburgh office confirmed that agents met with Peduto to discuss security precautions.

Catalyst Connection, an Oakland nonprofit economic development organization, organized the trip and paid Peduto's expenses.

Petra Mitchell, its president and CEO, said the group met with Cuba's vice minister of construction, minister of finance, director of all imports, the president of the chamber of commerce, and director of the port of Mariel, among others.

“The mayor's presence lent credibility to our trip and demonstrated how important their market is to our community, which opened the doors for our businesses,” said Mitchell.

Peduto said he's convinced Congress will lift the trade embargo within 18 months, and Pittsburgh companies will be positioned to find work in Cuba when that happens.

Cuba is “the last major market with no American products,” Peduto said. “This is the last frontier. The goal for my involvement was to be one of the first in the door, and that's what we are now.”

Gordon Craig, financial strategist for Lawrenceville-based Epiphany Solar Water Systems, who took the trip, said the Cubans were very interested in Epiphany's solar-powered water purification systems.

“One of the biggest things we saw was that not even the locals drink tap water,” he said. “For our technologies, it represents an enormous market to put our systems in houses, hotels, high-rise buildings, pretty much anywhere you can think that they would need water to drink.”

Craig said Epiphany's business would “expand exponentially” if it can work in Cuba. The company plans to do more market research and return to the country this year.

“Now no American banks are allowed to do business with Cuba directly,” he said. “That causes a barrier for us, but the market is enormous.”

Peduto is driving to Dayton on Friday to address business leaders and speak at the Miami Valley Cycling Summit about Pittsburgh's pedestrian and cycling programs, according to spokesman Tim McNulty. He will return Friday evening.

Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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