Sec. Gutierrez on the significance of normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba

For former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, the final turning point was his first trip to Cuba since leaving the island as a child. During that trip, he says, he finally understood that the decades-long U.S. embargo was causing great harm to the Cuban people, while doing virtually nothing to change the regime it was intended to overthrow.

The occasion for his trip was the official opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana in Aug. 2015, to which he was invited.

“I did not know how I would feel,” says Gutierrez. “I didn’t know if I would feel mad, sad, or paranoid. I was at the Hotel Nacional and I opened the curtains and I just felt joy. I was so glad to be back.” What Gutierrez also saw was the tough economic conditions the embargo had caused for the average Cuban citizen. “It just showed me the impact of our policy on the ground.”

Today Gutierrez—the former CEO of Kellogg Company and the current Co-Chair of Washington’s strategic advisory powerhouse, the Albright Stonebridge Group—is in favor of completely lifting of the embargo. It is a position that many Cuban-Americans now agree with. Most Cubans in Cuba, as well, want open relations with the U.S., he says.

“Informal polls that have been taken suggest that about 95 percent of Cubans living in Cuba agree with normalization,” he says. “But then on this side there are people who will say things like, ‘We are doing this to help the Cuban people. And we’re doing this because that is what the Cuban people want.’ I just find that to be a bit cynical.”

What makes Gutierrez’s change of heart so significant is that it was under his watch—as Secretary of Commerce for the second term of George W. Bush’s administration—that the embargo maintained its crescendo of tightening. It was his assignment to keep it that way.

“That was essentially the idea, to tighten the embargo,” says Gutierrez. “And I recall I used to visualize it, that here [on this side of the table] is tightening and here [on the other side] is loosening, and we are right here [at the extreme end of tightening]. How do you tighten it anymore?”

During Bush’s first term, the policy for Cuban imports of American food had already been tweaked. The rules had called for Cuba to pay cash for any food products, no credit accepted, an absurd notion to begin with since Cuba is not allowed maintain accounts in U.S. banks. Under Bush, that restriction was ratcheted up a notch; Cubans were required to pay cash even before the goods were loaded onto boats in the U.S., something no importer would dream of doing. “It’s almost like, we’ll sell to you but make it very hard for you to buy. So it’s sort of meaningless,” he says.

Even before Gutierrez had his homeland epiphany he had already moved in the direction of dialogue with Cuba, as opposed to hardline confrontation and economic sanctions to force regime change. His first doubts came during his years with the Bush Administration, when he spent time negotiating global trade issues.

“Here is the irony. Have we ever told the Saudi Arabians that we won’t buy oil from you unless you change your system? We criticize China’s system, but boy do we do business with them. The same with Vietnam. Cuba is always the outlier, the only place where a U.S. citizen can’t go as a tourist,” he says. “I think when you step back you have to ask, is it right that Cuba is the most sanctioned country in the world for the U.S.? Especially being 90 miles away and sharing a long history with the U.S.?”

By the time President Obama made his historic announcement in December 2014 that relations would be normalized, Gutierrez was ready to support a change in direction. In June 2015, even before his trip to Havana, he penned his now widely-cited op-ed piece for the New York Times, “A Republican Case for Obama’s Cuba Policy.”

After that, it only required his on-the-ground trip to fully realize his new take on lifting the embargo. “When you have a [Cuban] entrepreneur look you in the eye and say, ‘Please don’t change this,’ or ‘Please don’t leave us alone,’ you realize that there are real lives dependent on the U.S.”

The Winds of Change

While Gutierrez may be the most nationally recognized Cuban American to advocate lifting the embargo, he is far from alone. In the last five years, more and more prominent Cuban Americans have arrived at the conclusion that strangling Cuba economically has failed as a policy. And most Cubans and Cuban Americans now believe it is time to change course.

 This was made abundantly clear in September, when Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs—which has been tracking Cuban American attitudes toward Cuba longer than any other group—released its most recent polls.

For the conservative Cuban American political block in Florida, which has been relentless in their support of the embargo, the results were startling: A majority of Cuban and Cuban American residents of Miami-Dade County said they opposed continuing the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Sixty-three percent of the respondents who expressed an opinion said they were against it; even if you remove all those who declined to respond to the question, a majority—54 percent—remained opposed. An even larger majority (69 percent) supported the decision to resume diplomatic ties.

This is in stark contrast to earlier polls by FIU. Back in 1997, only 22 percent of respondents wanted to see the embargo lifted. Even as recently as 2011 a majority still opposed lifting the embargo, with the pendulum not tilting the other way until 2014 (52 percent in favoring of ending it).

Early Shifters

Well before this overall shift in opinion—and well before Gutierrez changed his position—a change of heart was already underway among prominent Cuban business leaders in Miami.

The accolade for the first important leader to publicly proclaim that the U.S. policy toward Cuba was misguided goes to Carlos Saladrigas, the former CEO of Vincam who, at the turn of the century, was considered one of the most successful and influential Cuban American businessmen in the U.S.

“In terms of the business community leaders, I was the first to come out,” says Saladrigas. “There were always people in Miami who advocated against the embargo, but they were dismissed as Castro sympathizers. I was the first respected member of the business community, so I had that kind of weight to bring to bear.”

What opened his eyes, says Saladrigas, was the papal visit to Cuba in 1998 by Pope John Paul II.

“When I saw the images on television of the thousands and thousands of Cubans who went there to worship with the Pope and see the Pope, at that moment it put me to reflect,” says Saladrigas, himself a staunch Catholic. “And I said to myself, ‘What have I done, preventing my brothers and sisters in Miami from having been there?’ In many ways I wish I had also been there, to join hands with my brothers and sisters there on the island, and to be there for that moment of joy and that moment of hope. So, that was clearly a very pivotal event. The second was Elián González.”

The Elián González affair was a major trauma for the Cuban American community as a whole. Elián, then a six-year old boy, had left Cuba by raft with his mother, who drowned in the November, 1999, attempt to reach Florida. The boy’s father, who remained in Cuba, demanded the return of his son.

The contest of international wills, and the internecine struggle between Elián’s father and the boy’s relatives in Miami, ended with a dramatic raid by Border Patrol agents of the home where the child was staying.

What upset many of Miami’s Cuban American leaders was the fact that they say they had negotiated a far more gentle turnover, a deal that was scrapped by then U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno at the last minute. “Our interest was in negotiating as much of an elegant solution as possible, one that was least damaging and hurtful to the child,” says Saladrigas.

When the deal was broken, Saladrigas says he was convinced that Reno had given in to demands from Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro. Among other conclusions, Saladrigas was convinced that Reno had played into Castro’s use of confrontation as a political tool. The result was the formation of the Cuba Study Group, an organization of prominent Cuban Americans that wanted to look at alternatives to confrontation.

“That was what spearheaded the formation of the Cuba Study Group, that we in the Cuban community were being totally ineffective,” he says. “We were absolutely reactive, never strategic.  We never realized that we were being manipulated by Castro, that we were feeding into Castro’s narrative. And that’s what led us to think there must be a better way. If we continued with this approach we were never going to solve this problem, we were never going to see change in Cuba.”

Co-founded with Saladrigas by Cuban beverage magnate Carlos de la Cruz, the Cuba Study Group was soon joined by a roster of influential Cuban business leaders, all with the simple purpose of studying the problem with an open mind—people like mega developer Jorge Perez, investor Paul Cejas, health care billionaire Mike Fernandez, and Miami politician Joe Ariola.

It took the group a long time to come to their conclusion, but 10 years after its founding, the Cuba Study Group finally published a white paper in 2011 that recommended fully lifting the embargo.

“I think we should lift it unilaterally and do it quick, in one fell swoop,” Saladrigas now says. “I believe in opening all kinds of doors—economic, political, social, information, whatever. The more windows and doors are open, the more the winds of change can blow through. Change is a powerful force in history, and nobody, not even Donald Trump, can stop the winds of change.”

Mike Fernandez, a Republican who made his fortune by creating and selling health care companies, was an early member of the Cuba Study Group. “We didn’t call press conferences, we didn’t make noise. We decided to just do studies and then do what the data showed us,” he says. Before the Elián González incident, Fernandez had been a hardliner. But like Gutierrez, he was moved after he traveled to Cuba.

“In 2000, I went back to Cuba for the first time because my grandfather was dying, and I wanted to meet Hemmingway’s boat captain. Those were the two reasons,” he says. Once there, he began to see the economic hardship the embargo was causing—something he, as a businessman, believed was counter-productive not only to their well-being but to the positive impact for change that economic development brings. “It’s easy to be a hardliner when you don’t have to see a face or shake a hand. When you put a face close enough, it becomes another human being.”

During that trip, says Fernandez, he took long walks on the streets of Havana, “just to find a conversation. And I found a [kindred spirit], that we seemed to be the same, and have the same sense of humor—that things are falling apart and we still can make fun of it.” During one of his walks he witnessed a woman at a government food ration store, screaming that her child hadn’t had any milk in three months. “I said right then that I have to do something to help these people,” recalls Fernandez.

He also concluded that the path to changing Cuba was not a political overthrow, but an economic empowering of the Cuban people through economic development. “Money is fungible. It doesn’t matter where it comes from or where it goes. But it’s needed to move the economy forward and Cuba doesn’t have it. And as long as the embargo is up there, Cuba is never going to have it.”

What makes the break with the past even more significant in the case of Gutierrez, Saladrigas, Fernandez and other Cuban Americans is their generation. Digging deeper into the FIU poll numbers, it becomes clear that opposition to the embargo rises among younger respondents, climbing to 72 percent for Cubans younger than 60; it is even higher (79 percent) among those who have arrived in Miami from Cuba after 1994.

Unlike these younger Cuban Americans, the generation that Gutierrez, Saladrigas, and Fernandez come from all suffered the loss of property, and sometimes relatives, to the Cuban Revolution. Gutierrez’s family owned a pineapple plantation that was nationalized; Saladrigas was spirited out of Cuba at age 12 as part of the Pedro Pan exodus; Fernandez’s father owned a grocery store that was nationalized.

“My father’s business was a little sandwich shop across from the movie house in this little town,” says Fernandez, who was raised in Manzanillo, at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra in Eastern Cuba. “It was taken over [by the government] and my father refused to work for them.”

At that time, you could still appeal the nationalization of a small business, so his father went before a five-person tribunal. “He told them, ‘I’m just a little guy in this town. Leave my business alone.’  They said, ‘No, it’s done, because you are running prostitution out of there.’ Now, at the time, people would give my father an IOU and then pay him back when they got paid. So, he finally said, ‘You claim there are whores coming to my place and you are right. I have IOUs from them, one from you and you and you.’ It turns out he had IOUs from three of the five people on the tribunal.”

Fernandez had to endure more than that as a child, including witnessing a firing squad execution when he was nine, and being shunned by other school children after his father was labeled a gusano (worm) for objecting to the nationalization of his business.

Despite these experiences, Fernandez believes that we are entering a new era, and that the past must be forgiven. In a full-page open letter to the community that he ran in the Miami Herald in September of 2015, entitled “I choose to help rebuild my old Cuba,” he stated it clearly: “I have made a choice: I will forgive. I will help rebuild. I will contribute.”

He has even held numerous sessions at his home with surviving members of the brigade that fought at the Bay of Pigs, to explain his position. “The first time [we met] I was this demon guy who just wanted to make more money in Cuba. I was attacked by local radio. We sat there, and after we sat there, human being to human being, they saw I didn’t have horns, and they looked around and said, ‘Well, he doesn’t need any more money…”

Pedro Freyre, a senior attorney with Miami-based Akerman, is another member of the same generation, who also began to rethink his position after the Elián González incident. He did not come to his new conclusion overnight—indeed, with a brother who fought at the Bay of Pigs and was imprisoned for two years, he had plenty of anger—but is now in favor of lifting the embargo, even if there is no quid-pro-quo.

“It was an elaborative process,” he says. “I evolved from the position of making the embargo as tough as we can, to maybe we can use the embargo as a tool, to maybe we can work something out, to maybe we should lift the entire thing.”

Like Saladrigas, Freyre thinks that continuing the embargo plays into the hands of Cuban government hardliners who want it to continue. “The Cuban government for all these years has been nothing short of masterful in the art of confrontation. They play the David versus Goliath card masterfully, including with the international community,” he says. “But now it’s 54 years later and my analysis [of what will work] is very different. We don’t have an aircraft carrier the horizon. We have cruise ships. We don’t have boots on the ground. We have flip flops on the ground.”

What the U.S. government will do in the coming months in terms of the embargo is anybody’s guess at this point. Everyone on both sides of the Florida Straits is waiting to see what President-elect Donald Trump’s policies toward Cuba will be. What worries them all is that Trump is not getting the correct information, that the debate in Washington is still dominated by a handful of very vocal Cuban American politicians who still believe that after more than half a century of imposed misery, a continuation of the embargo will bring down the regime.

While Fernandez remarks that “the hardliners are more vocal but we have the numbers,” that may not be sufficient if the next president is getting advice only from that vocal minority. What they are all concentrating on now is making sure that Trump hears both sides of the story.

“I think he should have people with the opposite point of view around him as well,” says Gutierrez. “He will make the ultimate decision, but I think he deserves the other side of the story, and he is just getting a very narrow set of talking points that sound—as someone who has now been to Cuba a number of times—very superficial.”

Gutierrez has made it his personal mission to redress that imbalance of input. And few Cuban Americans are in a better position to do so. Tall, well-tailored and debonair, with significant credentials in both the private and public realms (he also chairs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Cuba Business Council), Gutierrez has a commanding presence. He remains a staunch Republican and appears regularly on national television, making his case.

“When you meet Cubans you realize they are normal people, just like we are. We actually have a lot in common,” he says. “But one thing I concluded is that unlike members of that [older] generation, I don’t want to die with hatred in my heart. I want to think about the love I feel for that beautiful little island.”