NEW ORLEANS — Mayor LaToya Cantrell, two members of her staff and city council member Jay Banks are among those participating in an apparent business and cultural exchange in Cuba.

There was no official press release about the tour, but WWL-TV has learned, the mayor left for Havana Tuesday morning and the city is paying for her trip.

The mayor's office did confirm Cantrell was hoping " see firsthand how (Cuba's) history has produced unique opportunities and challenges in the areas of economic development, trade, healthcare, education and other quality of life issues."

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Attorney and Cuba native George Fowler, a long time critic of the Castro government on the island, called the trip a waste of time and taxpayer money.

"The notion that she's going to learn something in Cuba about economics is beyond absurdity," Fowler said. "It is totally ridiculous."

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Cuban-American Miguel Soler disagrees. He's visited Cuba twice in recent years and said he's glad Cantrell is building relationships with the country.

"I don't support the government in Cuba, but I support the people," Soler said. "That's my heritage."

New Orleans maritime attorney Walter Leger is also on the trip.

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He told WWL-TV that the group has plans to visit the University of Havana, the city's port facilities and Cuban medical schools. 

Leger is hopeful about business opportunities between New Orleans and Cuba. He is covering his own costs on the trip.    

Reaction to the visit remains a mixed bag back home.

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"I think it will help us, help Louisiana, but also help the people, the people of Cuba," Soler said.

"There is absolutely no reason to go to Cuba," Fowler said.

New Orleans Business Alliance President Quenten Messer is also part of the New Orleans delegation in Cuba.

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The alliance is paying Messer's expenses on the trip. Messer released this statement:

"Cuba was once a key economic partner of New Orleans, and the goal of the New Orleans Business Alliance is to build on the work of recent Louisiana trade missions to Cuba, and ensure that prospective business partners, investors and job creators know New Orleans is Open for Business. Today, we share several industry strengths that could lead to business creation opportunities such as tourism, the food industry and BioInnovation. Last, we feel it is critically important to support the City's Chief Economic Development Officer, Mayor Cantrell."       

The group is expected to return home from Cuba on Sunday.

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