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The Cuban-American Reset?

By Lawrence Gutman

On June 23, Carlos M. Gutierrez, former chief executive of Kellogg and U.S. commerce secretary under George W. Bush, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in support of President Obama’s efforts to promote entrepreneurship in Cuba. He argues, “business can have a transformational and uplifting impact on communities and whole societies,” and calls on “Republicans and the wider business community to stop fixating on the past and embrace a new approach to Cuba.”

The piece is significant because Gutierrez is a native-born Habanero whose family fled Cuba with him in the early 1960s, joined the nascent exile movement in South Florida, and advocated for the punitive policy apparatus that’s been in place for over fifty years and is currently being dismantled by the White House. But it is also important because it announces Gutierrez’s change of heart regarding the wisdom and effectiveness of diplomacy and trade across the Florida Straits.

Immediately after the announcement of renewed bilateral talks last December, Gutierrez openly disparaged the negotiations as “a major political win” for Raúl Castro that would likely result in “egg on our face.” These are the talking points of a shrinking group of anti-normalization hardliners and their congressional advocates in Washington. Yet in the wake of six months of diplomatic progress and continuing efforts by Cuban policymakers to grow the private sector, Gutierrez now maintains that “Today, I am cautiously optimistic for the first time in 56 years.”

As an expression of that optimism, the Times op-ed marks the first call by a prominent Republican and Cuban exile to acknowledge the achievements of bilateral diplomacy and endorse the cause of normalization.

Not long ago, Gutierrez’s argument would have provoked accusations of treason from many in the exile community. Yet such inflammatory rhetoric is growing fainter by the day. As the Cuban-American community grows increasingly estranged from the first wave of exiles and the benefits of reconciliation are made increasingly self evident, doing business with Cuba is seen less as appeasement of the Castros than smart politics and economics. And as prominent Cuban Americans like Gutierrez amplify their support for détente against the backdrop of diplomatic progress and rising Asian, Latin American, and European investment in the region, the isolationist trade policies that once seemed unshakeable now appear genuinely vulnerable.

All vulnerability aside, the heavy lifting of bilateral reconciliation has only just begun. In Washington, a core group of Cuban-American politicians with majority backing in congress remains committed to the sanctions agenda despite the integrationist view of the Cuban-American majority. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Díaz-Balart, two champions of the exile movement and adversaries of the policy reset, enjoy support from the anti-Castro organizations that Gutierrez’s parents’ generation founded and that continue to drive Cuban-American lobbying efforts. These leaders are largely responsible for the recent House vote against relaxed travel regulations, and will undoubtedly take further steps to undermine White House policy toward Cuba in the coming months. Virtually all the contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination share their views.

Given the persistent opposition of congressional Republicans to normalized diplomacy and trade, it’s prudent for Gutierrez to frame his argument in terms of economic development and assistance for the Cuban people. Gutierrez chooses not to reignite the old debates and ad hominem attacks that characterize policy debate on Cuba. Rather than demonizing his adversaries and repeating a litany of old arguments against the embargo, Gutierrez is encouraging his fellow GOP members to consider the modest economic opening created by the Castro government as an opportunity to forcefully advocate for capitalism in Cuba.

This approach avoids the tendency of some anti-embargo activists to assume that U.S. officials will simply vote for repeal if they are educated on the ineffectiveness of the policy. In fact, compelling arguments against the embargo have been swirling around policy discussions on Cuba for decades. Cuban-American officials and their congressional allies have already heard them, and they are unlikely to shift course in any meaningful way until Raúl Castro and his inner circle are out of power, fundamental rights for Cuban citizens are expanded, and accommodations regarding the nearly $7 billion in U.S. businesses and property seized by the Cuban government in the 1960s are reached. For the time being, a majority of congressional Republicans and presidential contenders place the burden of reconciliation in the hands of the Cuban leadership.

Gutierrez surely recognizes this, but may be thinking of another important dynamic at play. Although the reconciliation process will surely be long and difficult, political reform in Cuba may actually be on the horizon. Cuba’s need for capital in the wake of Venezuela’s economic crisis set the stage for bilateral talks in 2014. Leaders in Havana are acutely aware of the obstacles to normalized trade on Capitol Hill and, especially, the demand of internal reforms by embargo supporters.

Some reforms have already occurred. Havana freed 53 dissidents last January, allowed two dissidents to appear on ballots for municipal elections in May, and is arresting fewer political opponents than in the recent past. Independent journalists face considerably less government harassment and interference than at any time since the 1959 revolution. As the nascent private sector expands, young Cubans are better able to avoid government employment — especially in the repressive state security services — that may jeopardize their future prospects in a world of expanding social media and further integration with the U.S. Although constraints on individual freedoms remain firmly in place, the Cuban system is undergoing structural change that may portend well for the future.

Gutierrez understands that pressure on the Cuban government to enact reform may yield significant returns. It likely played a role in the July 1 announcement of formally restored bilateral relations and the opening of embassies in Cuba and the U.S. But he also recognizes that an effective way to grow support for normalization among Cuban-American officials and build political and economic consensus across the Florida Straits is to push the conversation away from the old talking points. Regardless of how successful diplomacy proves in the coming months, the reality is that even the most recalcitrant officials and their supporters will play a role in the reset process. True reconciliation won’t be possible if the leaders of the exile generation can’t be swayed to appreciate Gutierrez’s change of heart.

*****

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Lawrence Gutman has conducted research on governance and foreign investment in Cuba as a Fulbright Hays Fellow and Tinker Foundation Fellow. He holds an M.A. in Latin American history from the University of Texas at Austin, and is based in New York. He tweets @lawrencegutman.

[Photo courtesy of Neon Tommy]

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