Carlos Gutierrez, right, says now is the time to re-engage with Cuba, but companies should take a cautious approach with the embargo still in effect. Pictured here with Charles Shapiro, president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.

Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has seen the light on Cuba, and now he’s promoting increased engagement with the country of his birth, a communist state that has become both a political lightning rod and a source of curiosity for American companies looking for new markets.

Mr. Gutierrez wrote a bombastic New York Times op-ed in June describing an about-face in his thinking on what he now sees as a failed policy of isolationism espoused by the U.S. over the past half-century. 

“I decided to take a leap, and it feels good. It’s quite liberating,” he said in a keynote address during a World Affairs Council of Atlanta conference on Cuba Sept. 29. 

Mr. Gutierrez, a longtime Republican who served under President George W. Bush, described the change with an almost religious fervor — and noted that it brought about correspondingly zealous opposition from the anti-Cuba lobby, “one-issue people” whose adherents couldn’t countenance such a “betrayal,” he said.  

But after President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced their intention to normalize ties last Dec. 17, Mr. Gutierrez began to wonder whether his own views on the subject were outdated. 

A visit to the island 50 years after he left at 7 years old was what changed his mind for good. He saw the “seeds of commerce” sprouting through textile co-ops and privately run restaurants, and said hope was beginning to sprout as reforms began to loosen the state’s grip on the economy. 

Cuba has realized by watching China and other countries, he said, that it can keep tight rein on strategic sectors of the economy while allowing private investment to bloom in other areas. One example from his trip: A local restaurant could now fix its own freezer rather than waiting for a central government procurement agency to order and deliver a part.  

That’s where the biggest change is: the government now sees a future in privatization, however controlled. 

“You’ve got to make the leap intellectually, and I believe that leap has been made,” said Mr. Gutierrez, now principal of Albright Stonebridge Group, a consultancy.

Still, he cautioned American companies not to pile into the market of 11 million people before doing their homework — pointing out that the embargo precluding most trade still remains very much in effect with an entrenched congressional lobby behind it. 

Mr. Gutierrez said the embargo’s most ardent opponents should be American businesses that are falling behind to international competitors on projects like the Mariel port — built by Brazilians and operated by Singaporeans — and the international hotels built by Chinese and French firms springing up on the famous Malecon, Havana’s seaside esplanade.   

[pullquote]“The rest of the world isn’t resting.” -Carlos Gutierrez [/pullquote]

“The rest of the world isn’t resting,” he said. 

Those who oppose the embargo should pressure their congressional representatives to go to Cuba and see that its removal could have an immediate impact on the lives Cubans standing in the hot sun waiting for basic necessities. Arguments that representative democracy should be a prerequisite for engagement don’t take their opinions into account, he said. 

This is what I would ask the members of congress who are standing in the way of lifting the embargo: Why don’t you want to help 11 million people?”

He urged vocal critics of rapprochement to stop talking about Cuba until they’ve been there. For him, staying in the Hotel Nacional was a complete game-changer, giving him a good night’s sleep that he described as coming from a sense of belonging and reconciliation. 

“I felt joy, I felt happy, just this relief that I was in Cuba, just this sense of total, total bliss and happiness,” he said. “The first thing I thought about is, ‘Have I wasted time? Did I waste all that time because it was so politically incorrect, because it was so risky, because it wasn’t accepted, did I waste time and not come to Havana sooner?’ My conclusion was that I didn’t, that this is the time, that now is the time when both sides have aligned interests.”

The World Affairs Council of Atlanta, which has led multiple trips to Cuba, hosted the all-day conference on “Getting Real about Business in Cuba: Myths and Realities” to provide an update on the legality of certain industries and allow experts — from Atlanta executives to an official from the new Cuban embassy in Washington — to share their visions for bilateral relations and business. 

Learn more about the Cuba conference here

To learn how to travel to Cuba with the council in December or January, click here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...

2 replies on “Cuba Engagement: Now’s the Time, but Take It Slow, Says Former Commerce Secretary”

Comments are closed.