How a GOP hardliner on Cuba changed sides and what it cost him
Former Secretary of Commerce supports U.S., Cuba normalization
BY JAMES ROSEN
On a steamy summer day one year ago, standing on a dusty Havana
back-road, Carlos Gutierrez was somehow able to find the childhood home
he'd last seen more than a half century earlier, before he and his
family fled Fidel Castro's communist revolution.
It's a blood bank now, but he walked down the street, rounded a curve
and recognized it right away: No. 26, a simple one-story house.
More remarkable still was Gutierrez's presence there at all, helping to
lead a high-level American delegation to mark the reopening of the U.S.
Embassy in Havana.
For Gutierrez, the most fascinating journey of all has been an internal
one, an intellectual and emotional excursion that has carried him from
his role as an anti-Castro hardliner in Republican George W. Bush's
Cabinet to his new role as a champion of American business investment in
Gutierrez gives numerous reasons for his policy shift, ranging from
having left Miami as a child to his family's time in Mexico and his
later work in China.
By themselves, none of those things had been enough to change his mind.
But they culminated in a long talk with President Barack Obama that he
Obama's talk was like the last drop in a chemistry experiment that makes
a liquid solution turn solid in an instant: Each drop that came before
it contributed to the change, but only the last one made it happen.
"That sort of opened the door," Gutierrez told McClatchy . "It forced me
to think even more realistically."
Some one-time friends of the former commerce secretary don't buy his
evolutionary depiction of the shift. They see a financial motive tied to
his position as co-director of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a
high-powered Washington consulting firm that helps open doors for
American companies seeking to do business abroad.
"When it's an outright case of just literally doing it for the money on
an issue that he was a big believer in, I'm sorry – I have zero respect
for that," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from
Miami, told McClatchy.
Gutierrez, 62, rejects that kind of judgment.
"I don't need the money, but I do want to help the country of my birth,"
he told McClatchy.
Only three of his nine trips to Cuba in the past year, Gutierrez said,
have been for Albright Stonebridge clients. Four have been unpaid
excursions as head of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, a U.S. Chamber of
Commerce affiliate that he's headed without compensation since February
His initial journey in August last year was as part of the official U.S.
delegation for the embassy opening in Havana, while his other trip came
at the invitation of the Meridian International Center, a
Washington-based nonprofit that asked him to join a cultural exchange.
That first morning back in Cuba, filled with wonder, Gutierrez had
pulled open the curtain in his room at the Hotel Nacional and looked out
"I felt joy," Gutierrez recalled in an interview at Albright
Stonebridge, which he heads along with former Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright. His office is just a few blocks north of the U.S
Commerce Department, the mammoth federal agency he led less than a
"I felt just happy to be in the place that I was born – the place I'd
thought so much about and read so much about. It was just a very special
feeling. And, then, the people are great."
As happy as it made him, the homecoming came at a steep personal price.
Gutierrez, a handsome man with a gray mustache on a trim face, had been
a hero to Cubans in South Florida and beyond – only the second
Cuban-American member of a White House Cabinet. The first, Mel Martinez,
served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bush before
Gutierrez joined his Cabinet. Martinez later represented Florida in the
Gutierrez's embrace of the Castro regime made him an overnight pariah
among his own.
"They see it as betrayal," Gutierrez said.
Friends stopped talking to him, and not just Diaz-Balart. Miami
Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whose election campaign Gutierrez
supported in 2014, said he felt blindsided.
"I consider his change of position drastic, and it was unexpected,"
Some of Gutierrez's friends felt ambushed.
"It was sad to hear," Orlando Gutierrez Boronat, head of the Cuban
American Directorate in Miami, told McClatchy. "I regret that he's taken
Asked whether he and Carlos Gutierrez remain close, Boronat responded,
"We were friends. It's been a while since I've spoken with him."
Doubts about his true motivations anger the normally unflappable Gutierrez.
"Naysayers should have the courage to go to Cuba to see the damage this
failed (embargo) policy has done to millions of people, instead of
sitting behind a desk making misinformed statements about a country
they've never visited," he said.
The former Kellogg Co. CEO said a number of peers from his generation
have expressed support privately.
"I've spoken with people in their 60s who have told me, 'Look, I would
like to go back to Cuba, but my parents are still alive. And I just
can't do it while they're still alive,' " he said.
Gutierrez left Cuba with his family on July 16, 1960, shortly after the
Castro regime had confiscated the pineapple plantation his father
co-owned in Majagua, a town in Ciego de Avila province in the center of
the island, 250 miles southeast of Havana. He was 6 years old.
The family spent its first 2 1/2 years in the United States in Miami,
starting with a three-month stay at the Richmond Hotel on Collins
Avenue. They moved to New York and Mexico, where Gutierrez began what
would become a three-decade career with Kellogg. In April 1999, he was
named the cereal company's chairman and CEO, becoming the only Latino
head of a Fortune 500 company at that time.
While he tries to eat healthy breakfasts, Gutierrez admits an abiding
weakness for Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes of Tony the Tiger fame.
"Frosted Flakes and whole milk – hard to beat," he said.
Gutierrez still lives in Washington, though he often travels abroad and
frequently visits friends in South Florida.
Gutierrez's coming-out declaration on his Cuba conversion arrived in the
form of a New York Times column on June 23, 2015, six months after Obama
announced that the United States would be restoring diplomatic relations
with Havana after a 54-year break grounded in the Cold War.
Under the headline "A Republican Case for Obama's Cuba Policy,"
Gutierrez wrote: "Today, I am cautiously optimistic for the first time
in 56 years. I see a glimmer of hope that, with Cuba allowing even a
small amount of entrepreneurship and many American companies excited
about entering a new market, we can actually help the Cuban people."
A month earlier, in a speech at Georgetown University, Gutierrez had
hinted at his evolving views. He pointed to the increased depth and
other improvements at Cuba's Mariel port, in order to accommodate bigger
cargo ships passing through the widened Panama Canal, as a key sign of
the Castro government's commitment to economic reform.
"There are ports on the East Coast of the United States that aren't
ready yet for Panama's expanded canal, but the Port of Mariel is ready,"
Gutierrez said. "So would you build that kind of port if you weren't
thinking about doing something to the economic system?"
In February of this year, Gutierrez introduced visiting Cuban Foreign
Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca to a standing ovation at the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce in Washington, on the same day the two governments
signed a commercial aviation agreement in Havana.
"As a proud U.S. citizen born in Cuba, it became very evident to me that
the love of the people, the love of the land of my birth – of my
parents' birth, of my grandparents' birth, the land of my ancestors –
that love was greater than any political differences that we could have
between the two countries," Gutierrez told American corporate leaders.
Gutierrez urged Congress to end the economic embargo first imposed on
Cuba in October 1960 during President Dwight Eisenhower's waning weeks
These actions stunned the former commerce chief's Cuban-American
friends. To many, his 180-degree turn from hardliner to peacemaker came
out of the blue.
A widely disseminated photograph of a smiling Gutierrez and Malmierca
hit like an earthquake in the Cuban-American communities of South
Florida, New York and Los Angeles.
"Somebody called me Judas," Gutierrez said with a rueful smile.
Gutierrez had long been a committed hardliner about Cuba.
As commerce secretary, he co-chaired the Committee for Assistance to a
Free Cuba, established by Bush with the express goal of overthrowing the
In September 2008, nearing the end of his tenure at commerce, he said in
a speech at the Harvard School of Government: "What the embargo has
accomplished, it has denied a sworn enemy of our country more resources
that he could use against us."
At first, he even pronounced himself opposed to Obama's Cuba policy
shift. "The U.S. has given so many concessions and not received anything
in return," he told Time Magazine.
Yet within six months Gutierrez would publish his bombshell column in
The New York Times, and his life would undergo a seismic shift.
9 The number of trips Gutierrez has taken to Havana since the U.S.
Embassy reopened last August
Gutierrez struggles to pinpoint one thing that caused his change. There
was the private chat with Obama and his long experience in China, first
with Kellogg and more recently in his current post.
"I've watched Chinese who left China go back to China, do business in
China and sort of look to the future," he said "And one question I
always had is: Why can't I do that about Cuba? And that's where I've
tried to go objectively."
Leaving Miami as a youngster, Gutierrez said, also may have left him
more open to change.
"I think it's tougher for people who live in Miami to actually make the
intellectual leap that 58 years have transpired – to be able to step
back and see Cuba objectively, not emotionally."
Living for 30 years mainly in Mexico and Battle Creek, Michigan, site of
Kellogg headquarters, exposed Gutierrez to different points of view.
On a more personal level, Gutierrez said his father was less
ideologically rigid than some other Cuban exiles of his generation. "My
father was very realistic," he said. "He didn't want to hear about it.
He never wanted to go back. From early on, he just said, 'It's over, and
it will never be the same.' "
John Kavulich, the founder and head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic
Council in New York, which has promoted trade with Cuba long before the
U.S. Chamber ever thought of doing so, believes that in the end,
Gutierrez's sudden public shift on Cuba must remain somewhat mysterious.
Over the last year, Gutierrez has picked Kavulich's brain during
numerous meetings and phone talks before and after the former commerce
secretary's trips to Cuba.
"He has gravitas because he was CEO of Kellogg and he was secretary of
commerce in a Republican administration," Kavulich said. "Now he's had
this epiphany. Having an epiphany can be good. The question going
forward is: What will he do with his epiphany beyond using it as just a
marketing tool? It's hard to get into someone's head."
Jaime Suchliki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuba
and Cuban-American Studies, is one Gutierrez friend who hasn't ended the
relationship over Gutierrez's extraordinary policy shift. Gutierrez is a
non-resident scholar there and a member of its advisory board.
The two men went out to breakfast in Miami a few months ago and had a
frank conversation. Suchliki asked him if he was out to make money or
maneuvering to be ambassador to Cuba, and he said no to both questions.
"I was tough with him, but he kept on giving the line that we have to
help the Cuban people, maybe this is going to bring some change,"
When Gutierrez asked whether Suchliki wanted him to withdraw his ties to
the institute, it was Suchliki's turn to say no.
"I said, 'I think you're wrong, but you can have your opinion,' "
While Gutierrez feels some sadness about the ruptured friendships, he
has made peace with his controversial position.
"I feel very comfortable with where I am," he told a reporter. "And you
can quote me on that."
CORRECTION: THIS VERSION CORRECTS THE DESCRIPTION TO WHAT GUTIERREZ SAW
OUT HIS HOTEL ROOM WINDOW LAST YEAR.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose
Source: Cuba hardliner's change of heart leaves his Miami friends angry
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