CubaNews / February 2007
By Larry Luxner
Those hoping for some hint that the Bush administration might be willing to soften its policy on Cuba were sorely disappointed Feb. 21, when U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez made it clear that nothing will be changing anytime soon.
Gutiérrez, speaking before 200 participants at a Council of the Americas conference in Washington entitled “Cuba After Fidel,” said the White House would resist pressure by members of Congress as well as pro-business lobbies and some Cuban exile groups to ease restrictions on food sales to Cuba as well as Cuban-American family travel to the island.
“Cuba is at a critical point in history,” said the Havana-born Gutiérrez, 53, who came to this country in 1960, one year after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. “The country is poised for change, and the policy of the Bush administration has been to help the Cuban people achieve their freedom through democratic change — and not do them a great disservice by legitimizing a successor regime and helping it maintain its tight grip over the Cuban people.”
Gutiérrez, former chairman and chief executive of Kellogg Co., joined the president’s cabinet in 2005. As secretary of commerce, he oversees an agency with some 38,000 workers and a $6.5 billion budget.
The highest-ranking Cuban-American in the Bush administration, Gutiérrez also co-chairs the president’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
He insisted in his half-hour speech — which ended with the traditional ¡Viva Cuba libre! —that “the embargo is not the problem, but rather Cuba’s repressive communist system, and the only solution is to change the system.”
Several pieces of legislation now making their way through Congress call for a relaxation of the embargo. These range from a bill co-sponsored by Reps. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Charles Rangel (D-NY) that would lift a ban on tourist trips to the island by U.S. citizens, to an unrelated measure co-sponsored by Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Ray LaHood (R-IL) that would end all restrictions on family visits to the communist-ruled nation.
“Being in the majority, I think we can be successful this year,” Rangel told Bloomberg News Service. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and all but one of the new House committee chairmen voted in the past for easing the embargo, according to Kirby Jones of the US-Cuba Trade Association.
“What has changed is that the people whose names are on these bills now are powerful people, be-cause they chair committees and run the mechanisms of the House, and determine the rules of the debate — all of which are factors that worked against our side last time,” said Jones, president of the Washington-based association, which speaks for 55 U.S. companies and organizations.
Jones told CubaNews that “Lincoln Díaz-Balart was No. 2 in the House Rules Commit-tee, and now [that slot is taken by Louise] Slaughter of New York, who has a perfect voting record as far as we’re concerned. In fact, nearly every chairman of every committee has a perfect record on Cuba issues, meaning they’ve voted to change our Cuba policy every chance they could.”
Jones added: “If the Rangel bill passes and arrives on George Bush’s desk, he would veto it. But that is probably not going to happen, because it will be attached to a bigger bill, and then it becomes dicey for the president.”
In 2004, the Bush administration restricted Cuban-American visits to their relatives from once every year to once every three years. Only visits to close relatives were allowed, among other limitations.
Under the Delahunt-LaHood proposal, there would be no caps on the amount of money Cuban Americans could take to their relatives on their trips to Cuba.
Delahunt, calling the Bush policy “stunning in its cruelty,” said he had no indication from the Democratic leadership if the bill’s consideration would be expedited.
He supports other initiatives to lift economic restrictions on Cuba but believes his initiative was a “stand-alone bill that both sides of the aisle can support.”
In addition, Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS) has introduced legislation — along with Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) to ease payment restrictions on cash sales of food to Cuba, a bill strongly backed by the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The Moran-Emerson bill contains four provisions supported by AFBF. These are:
*Allowing individuals making agricultural sales with Cuba to travel on a general license.
*Issuing visas to Cuban inspectors to enter the U.S. to inspect processing facilities;.
*Clarifying payments of cash in advance;
*Allowing direct wire transfers from Cuba financial institutions to those in the U.S.
“There are considerable restrictions placed on U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba which im-pede our marketing efforts and sales to that country. This legislation would remove those costly barriers,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman.
He vowed that “AFBF will continue its work with Congress to pass legislation to eliminate these costly restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba. Such restrictions adversely affect markets and are an inappropriate tool for the implementation of foreign policy.”
U.S. agriculture sales to Cuba have totaled $1.4 billion since 2000. Last year alone agricultural sales totaled $350 million, up from the previous year. Alimport, Cuba’s official food purchasing agency, claims it has contracted for over $2 billion in U.S. agricultural commodities since 2000, with 2006 sales alone coming to $544 million.
Yet the pro-business Gutiérrez doesn’t seem too eager to see those numbers increase. “To those who suggest that Cuba is a vast untapped market for U.S. goods, and that lifting the embargo would be a boon to foreign trade, I say foreign firms will not flourish on the island as long as a communist system remains in control,” he told his Washington audience, which included the ambassadors of Costa Rica, Colombia and Hungary.
“Some maintain that by maintaining the embargo, the U.S. has made the situation on the island worse. That is flat wrong, and we have 48 years of history now to prove that,” he claimed.
“The U.S. has been a major source of humanitarian aid to Cuba. In fact, we provide one-third of the island’s food and medicine. So the question is not when will the U.S. change its policy. This is the wrong question.
“The question is when will the Cuban regime change its policy. Years of foreign investment have not improved the lives of average Cubans, only the lives of those who hold power.”
Asked by CubaNews whether the White House would consider easing rules restricting Cuban-American travel to the island, Gutiérrez made it clear there would be no changes, even though that’s exactly what many Cuban-American exile groups in Miami are now demanding.
“We believe passionately that our policy is correct,” he replied. “When you travel to Cuba, a great deal of your money leaves your hands at the airport. This becomes a source of dollars for the regime and never really goes into the economy or into the hands of the average Cuban.”
Gutiérrez added that the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his younger brother Raúl won’t have any effect on the administration's hard line against Cuba — despite Raúl’s calls for a normalization of relations between Washington and Havana.
“Changes will not take place under Fidel or Raúl Castro. It is naive to believe otherwise,” he declared. “We are doing everything we can to get the word out that it would be a tragic mistake to recognize a successor regime in Cuba. We will not work with a regime that is a declared enemy of the United States and is opposed to every value we hold sacred. Fidel has repeatedly demonized the United States, blaming us for the failures of his policies.”
Gutiérrez, who during his 30-year career at Kellogg gradually worked his way up from sales rep to chief executive — becoming the youngest CEO in the breakfast cereal company’s nearly 100-year history — derided Fidel Castro for “destroying an opportunity for the Cuban people” to make lives for themselves.
“There is a culture of widespread corruption, and Cubans have to skim off the top just to survive. They live on the margins, and they resolve to get by wherever they can. Tools disappear from government worksites so people can attempt to earn some income as cobblers and handymen,” he said.
“After the fall of the Soviet Union, when the GDP dropped by nearly one-third, the regime began selectively issuing permits to allow private enterprise to offset economic losses.
“Yet when the economy looked like it was beginning to improve somewhat, the experiment with capitalism was halted. I believe that Castro saw this newfound independence as a threat to his power. After all, the most effective way for a communist dictator to hold onto power is to ensure that people are kept down by chains of dependence.”
He added: “The Cuban system amounts to nothing more than indentured servitude. Yet the exploitation of workers is rarely acknowledged by those who call for a lifting of the embargo. The record shows that the regime can manage trade and investment while remaining repressive.”
Gutiérrez, perhaps sensitive to criticism that Bush seeks to dominate a post-Castro Cuba politically and economically, said “the focus should not be on Miami, Wash-ington or New Jersey,” but on Cuba itself.
“We recognize that the future of Cuba is in the hands of the Cuban people,” he declared. “To the people of Cuba, I say this: our president has absolutely no imperialist intentions. We have no military plans to occupy Cuba, and we will not confiscate any property. The greatest threat against Castro is not the U.S. government, but the spirit of freedom in the hearts of the Cuban people.”