Reflecting on Carlos Gutierrez’s Cuba Conversion and Why He Was Rebuked

June 26, 2015

As U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the administration of President George W. Bush, Carlos Gutierrez supported policies to overthrow Cuba’s government and replace its political and economic systems with a framework forged in Washington.

A day after the speeches by President Obama and Castro on their decision to restore bilateral relations, Gutierrez told Time Magazine that the agreement was “lopsided,” and he warned the U.S. business community, “This could backfire in a really big way.”

After some hints and feints earlier this year, Gutierrez has fully and publicly made the transition from anti-Castro caterpillar to pro-engagement butterfly, in what the Miami New Times is calling “a startling turnaround for a Cuban American,” but which others describe as a betrayal.

Mr. Gutierrez published an essay in the New York Times this week, “A Republican Case for Obama’s Cuba Policy,” which follows the arc of his life from 1960 when his family left Cuba and with it all their possessions, to this moment when he can look back after having “achieved personal and professional success beyond anything I could have imagined.”

In December 2014, he found himself, as a Republican and Cuban American, thinking Obama was out-negotiated by a Cuban government determined to extend the revolution. Now, Secretary Gutierrez sees genuine progress in the plans to open new embassies and the bilateral talks on a host of issues, including the status of U.S. fugitives in Cuba.

He writes, “I never expected negotiations to get this far.”

Secretary Gutierrez now believes it is in the best interests of the Cuban people for President Obama’s new policies to succeed. In his op-ed, he urges support for the reforms that seek to help Cuba’s growing class of small-business owners and employees “obtain the tools, supplies, building materials and training in accounting, logistics and other areas” that they need “to chart their own course in life.”

Then, significantly, he turns to his “fellow Cuban-Americans [who] insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people because it will lead to democracy,” and asks “if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.”

We think the Secretary’s turnabout and his direct challenge to the hardliners is a pretty big deal. His critics seem to think so, too.

Guillermo I. Martinez claimed the Secretary’s column “makes no sense,” and expressed his feelings of betrayal in writing, “I cannot imagine him saying that when he was working for a Republican president or when he was working for an American company.”

Taking the theme of defection to the next level, Capitol Hill Cubans published this piece saying that “The Obama Administration (and Castro’s D.C. lobbyists) weren’t the only ones thrilled by former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez’s endorsement of the Obama Administration’s (give-everything-for-nothing) Cuba policy,” alleging that the piece had run in Granma, the state newspaper, because “Castro’s censors clearly found nothing objectionable in Gutierrez’s editorial.”

If this language of reproach is familiar, you might be thinking of the reaction to Alfonso Fanjul, the Cuban American sugar magnate, when he told the Washington Post he was open to investing in Cuba. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen responded by saying “it’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.”

Or you might be reminded of Senator Marco Rubio’s refrain of betrayal after the White House commended Pope Francis for his instrumental role in the U.S.-Cuba negotiations. Rubio told a packed press conference he’d take it upon himself to “ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy” in Cuba, adding, “the people of Cuba deserve to have the same chances at Democracy as the people of Argentina have had, where he’s from.”

It was only a few days back, when Engage Cuba celebrated its broad coalition – studded with distinguished foreign policy experts, industry leaders, and Cuban American moderates – favoring repeal of the embargo and normalized relations, that Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, the Cuban dissident and adjunct professor at Brown University, declared war. Literally:

“For pro-democracy activists both on and off the island, the war is no longer against the dynastic and despotic regime of Revolution Plaza, but against the indifferent and indecent establishment of the White House and State Department.”

What makes the brash become so rash when leaders have a change of heart? Social science tells us they are trying to discourage other leaders from changing their minds to stop members of their community from following suit.

Cass Sunstein, a constitutional scholar and public intellectual, has described how the information silos many of us live in make us resistant to changing our minds. He labels as the “the echo chamber effect,” the influence that MSNBC wields on the left and that Fox News exerts on the right. In those communities, groups tend reach the same judgments based on the same arguments, while a desire to get along with the larger group suppresses individuals who might otherwise think differently.

Even though people will dismiss accurate information because it would falsify their convictions (think climate change is real or the embargo hasn’t worked), Sunstein argues that “they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss.”

That’s why the President and the Pope loom so large. It is also why, when a sugar baron or a former Commerce Secretary changes his mind, the hardliners act as if they are losing theirs. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cuban Military Not So Transparent Act

June 19, 2015

Legislation introduced earlier this month by Senator Marco Rubio (FL) – the Cuban Military Transparency Act – isn’t transparent at all.

Rather than revealing something about Cuba’s military, the legislation conceals the intent of its authors; namely, to shame, harass, and try to stop every American from visiting Cuba or seeking to do business in Cuba, and to return U.S. policy to its pre-December 17, 2014 goal of starving the Cuban economy and the Cuban people along with it.

Why are the seven Senate sponsors relying now on such desperate measures? A few numbers – 43, 36, and 620,000 – tell the story.

  • We can now count forty-three Republican and Democratic Senators who’ve stepped forward to sponsor The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, legislation to make it legal for all Americans to travel to Cuba. We congratulate Senators Barbara Mikulski (MD), Patty Murray (WA), and Pat Roberts (KS), the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, for being the most recent among them.
  • President Obama’s decision to streamline regulations on purposeful travel to Cuba has galvanized interest across the United States in visiting Cuba. From January 1 to May 9th in 2015, there has been a 36% increase by Americans to the island over the same period last year.
  • For Cuban Americans who can visit Cuba on an unlimited basis, thanks to regulatory changes by President Obama, travel to the island is rising substantially. According to the Havana Consulting Group, family travel visits could 620,000 in 2015, a record.

This surge in visitors makes a huge difference for Cubans employed in transportation, lodging, restaurants, the owners of restaurants and beds and breakfasts, and the artisans and translators who get payments in hard currency or work in the “tip economy.”

According to 14ymedio, the number of self-employed persons in Cuba exceeded 500,000 for the first time at the end of May 2015, with young people and women benefitting enormously.  Studies show that travel and tourism are big drivers of employment and economic growth. As state-owned enterprises like hotels struggle to accommodate increases in tourism, the private sector will, as one analyst reported, fill capacity gaps, especially in the areas of lodging and restaurants, accelerating change in the structure of Cuba’s economy.

The economic reforms under President Raúl Castro enable Cubans to work for businesses that profit from the increase in travel taking place under President Obama’s policy reforms. Many Cubans are earning more money, and interacting and exchanging more with U.S. travelers. This is a virtuous circle producing better lives for Cubans in ways that simply couldn’t happen under 50 years of isolation and sanctions.

Most of us look at this emerging picture and think, “what’s not to like?” In contrast, the Senate sponsors of the Cuban Military Transparency Act see the fifty years of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions they’ve supported coming to an end. That is why they are acting so desperately.

So, what does their legislation really attempt to do? If enacted into law, it would prohibit a U.S. person from engaging in any financial transactions with Cuba’s Ministry of Defense and Interior Ministry, senior officials employed by them, or entities they own or control.

It’s not a secret that in Cuba, a socialist state with a largely state-owned economy, the military is invested in state-owned businesses, and several of those – as the Senate bill says – are dominant players in Cuba’s tourist industry.

Given the military’s broad role in Cuba’s economy, any expenditure by U.S. travelers and businesses – including the cost of hotel rooms, telephone calls, airport taxes, the hotel occupancy tax, sales taxes on tourist purchases, resort fees – could be prohibited presumptively unless the traveler or company could persuade OFAC they spent their money in Cuba some other way.

How could they prove the negative? Who in Cuba will hand out the forms that say “that hotel room” or “that painting” or “that serving of ropa vieja” didn’t come from an enterprise owned or controlled by Cuba’s military? Of course, the sponsors aren’t interested in compliance with their bill – they simply want to fill Americans with fear so that they don’t pack their bags and go, doing incalculable damage on Cuban families and their prospects for the future.

And let’s be clear: this legislation covers ETESCA, Cuba’s telecommunications company. Should it become law, it would prohibit Google and Facebook from doing business in Cuba. Millions of Cubans waiting for better connections to the Internet could thank the 7 Senate “transparency act” sponsors for that result as well.

If there were a truth-in-naming rule in the U.S. Congress, they could have given this enormously damaging legislation a much more fitting title:

  • The No-Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act;
  • The Stop Cuban Americans From Visiting their Families in Cuba Act;
  • The Smother Free Enterprise in Cuba Act; or even
  • The Keep Google and Facebook from Connecting Cubans to the Internet Act

But no such rule in Congress exists, as is transparently the case.

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Is The Supreme Court Passport Decision A Threat to Helms-Burton? We think so.

June 12, 2015

The Supreme Court’s decision this week in what is called the Jerusalem Passport Case poses a clear danger to the Helms-Burton law, and it will help to accelerate the unraveling of what has held together our nation’s counterproductive policies against Cuba.

The hardliners feared and predicted exactly this fallout from a decision by the Supreme Court that was adverse to their interests.

First, let’s start with a brief description of the case.

Although Israel considers Jerusalem to be its capital, Presidents of both parties since Harry Truman have maintained a neutral position on Jerusalem’s status pending a peace settlement. In 2002, Congress, as the Washington Post explained, “passed a law that, among other things, allows Jerusalem-born applicants for U.S. passports to record their place of birth as ‘Israel’ if they so request.” The intent was to nudge U.S. policy in the direction of Israel’s position on Jerusalem. President Bush, who signed the provision as part of a larger appropriation measure, nonetheless issued a public statement opposing it because it “impermissibly interferes with the President’s authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs.”

SCOTUS Blog takes up the story here: “Shortly after his birth in Jerusalem in 2002, Menachem Zivotofsky’s parents applied for a U.S. passport for their infant son,” exercising their right under the Congressional passport provision “to ask the State Department to designate ‘Israel’ as Menachem’s place of birth.”

The State Department turned them down, citing the U.S. policy since 1948 “of not recognizing any country as having sovereignty over the holy city of Jerusalem. The Zivotofskys went to court to challenge that decision.”

For nearly 13 years, the case went up and down the judicial and appellate food chain. But the closer it got to the Supreme Court, the more anxious the cross-cutting coalition of pro-Israel and anti-Castro Members of Congress became.

What Senate and House supporters of the passport feared most was the possibility that the President could be given what their amicus brief called “carte blanche to treat as unconstitutional—and to refuse to comply with—any Act of Congress that it determines touches on recognition policy.”

In its 6-3 decision, however, the Supreme Court held the President has exclusive power to grant formal recognition to a foreign sovereign. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said “The formal act of recognition is an executive power that Congress may not qualify.” In what could almost be construed as a reference to the Cuba negotiations, the Court writes, “The President is capable, in ways Congress is not, of engaging in the delicate and often secret diplomatic contacts that may lead to a decision on recognition.”

At the same time, the Supreme Court left in place all the powers the Congress shares with the President on foreign policy – to declare war, regulate foreign commerce, fund the armed forces, the right to vote down ambassadors, the power to provide no funds for an embassy –the tools that the hardliners are using in the appropriations process right now to try and turn back the Cuba policy reforms ordered by President Obama after he announced our diplomatic breakthrough with President Castro.

But, time and again, the Court makes clear that “Recognition is a ‘formal acknowledgement’ that a particular entity possess the qualifications for statement’ or ‘that a particular regime is the effective government of a state’,” and that those powers belong to the President of the United States alone.

Now, go read Helms-Burton, the law signed by President Bill Clinton, which arrogates to the Congress a lot of authority for determining when – and under what circumstances – the United States can resume normal relations.

The law says the president cannot color outside the Congressional drawn lines. Only when the government in Cuba fits the definition of a government in transition or a democratically-elected government can the President recognize Cuba, trade with Cuba, negotiate with Cuba over Guantanamo, allow Cuba to enter the World Bank or other financial institutions, etc.

This is what Helms-Burton was also all about; placing conditions on the independent authority of the President and preventing him or her from engaging in diplomacy or normalizing relations with Cuba, until Cuba fit the definition that Congress wrote into the law. It was seizing for itself the recognition authority that the Supreme Court ruled this week is assigned to the President alone.

The whole architecture of the Cold War Cuba policy is coming apart. It has no public support to speak of. President Obama has used his executive power to liberalize travel and trade. Engagement is as popular in Florida as it is anywhere in the United States, and it is even more popular in Cuba. U.S. travel to the island is surging; businesses are chomping at the bit to make contacts and sign contracts. Members of Congress who marched in lock-stop with the hardliners are changing their minds. And now the law which was the backstop for all of this – and for all the people who said, the power lies with Congress and Congress ain’t budging – the passport case proved to be the sum of all their fears.

In fact, the President gets to decide which governments we recognize; a principle, the court tells us, dating back to the first presidential administration. “The debate,” the court writes, arose in 1793 after France had been torn by revolution. Once the Revolutionary Government was established, Secretary of State Jefferson and President Washington, without consulting Congress, authorized the American Ambassador to resume relations with the new regime.” When Citizen Genet was welcomed in Washington, France was recognized.

Yes the Senate through its confirmation power can stop the President from having a U.S. Ambassador in Cuba, but it cannot stop the Cuban Ambassador from being welcomed by the President.

If it worked for George Washington and Citizen Genet, it will work for Barack Obama and Jose Cabañas.

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On respect, readiness, and what keeps you up at night

June 5, 2015

“Yes, but what keeps you up at night?”

The question, at first, seemed to startle our friend Emilia, standing with us last Friday night in Havana.

We began our conversation talking about why warmer relations with the United States meant so much to her. She is a state employee who stands to benefit little, if at all, from the surging number of visitors from the U.S.

To her, the opening created by Presidents Obama and Castro is relieving the crushing burden of separation that has weighed on Cubans like Emilia since our paths divided in 1959.

Her eyes, which had flashed with excitement discussing Cuba’s removal from the terror list, quieted and became serious.

“What keeps me up at night? Two things do,” She said. “First, when the increase in travelers comes from the United States, we will not be ready, and you may ask ‘why did we come?’”

And then, more serious still, “The second thing I worry about is that you will not think we have something to offer; that you will not respect us in return.”

If the hardliners in Congress get their way, Cubans will have unlimited time to get ready for more visits from the United States. As we reported last week, they are using the budget bills moving through the House to shut down President Obama’s travel reforms and other features of our historic diplomatic opening with Cuba.

New flights and ferry services would be cut off under provisions of the THUD (Transportation, Housing and Urban Development) appropriations bill. The President’s new approach on sending exports to Cuba – a shot in the arm for the nascent small business sector– are also undermined by spending limits in the Commerce Department funding bill.

These measures, if signed into law by the president, would last for just the forthcoming fiscal year, however legislation introduced this week by Senator Marco Rubio would more permanently stop the flow of money to Cuban businesses associated in any way with Cuba’s military and any entities it controls. As the Latin Post reported yesterday, passage of this legislation would even subject U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba to potential penalties.

Of course, U.S. firms can easily do business with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China – among many other countries – and U.S. travelers freely visit those places (as Senator Rubio’s Deputy of Chief of Staff did last year on an all-expenses paid trip to Beijing).

It seems like the guiding principle in efforts like Senator Rubio’s is not human rights, but hatred of the Castro government and adherence to the Cold War era strategies of trying to starve the island and its people in order to bring that government down.

Emilia wouldn’t see the respect she is hoping for in recent columns by Andres Oppenheimer and Jose Cardenas. These commentators aren’t at all concerned by U.S. businesses doing deals in Cuba; both are convinced there’s nothing there. Cardenas calling “Cuba” bankrupt, saying it’s like “an overripe mango waiting to be plucked by American business,” and Oppenheimer calling Cuba “one of the most backward countries in Latin America.”

Perhaps they could try seeing Cuba through the same set of open eyes Congressman Bradley Byrne from Alabama brought to the island last week.

Byrne, who visited Cuba with the Center for Democracy in the Americas (we publish the Cuba Central News Blast) with four of his House colleagues, came to Cuba having opposed the President’s decision to remove Cuba from the terror list.

On his return, however, he told WKRG, a local Mobile television station, “Cuba is not involved with the terrorists we see today which is mainly among Islamic groups in the Middle East. So, I think the President made the right decision to remove them from the terrorist list.”

President Obama has promised to veto the budget measures and protect the opening he created with President Castro last year. Week by week more members, like Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, are joining legislative efforts in the House and Senate to lift the ban on travel to Cuba in its entirety.

By many different metrics, Cuba is not ready for a huge influx of tourists from the United States. It suffers from a shortage of hotel rooms as well as infrastructure problems that concern Cuban economists and others we talked with in Havana last week.

But as one of them said, “That’s our problem,” and she urged Rep. Byrne and the other policymakers not to patronize Cuba by withholding U.S. policy changes that ought to be undertaken because they are right things to do.

Prepared or not for an influx of tourists, Cubans are waiting for the respect that all countries deserve from the United States. If we can alleviate that worry of Emilia’s, perhaps we’ll all sleep a bit better.

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