When Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Cuba last August to raise the Stars and Stripes over the newly reopened US Embassy, his entourage included Carlos Gutierrez, a prominent Cuban-American businessman who served as secretary of commerce in the George W. Bush administration. As part of Bush’s tough-on-Cuba policy, Gutierrez co-chaired the US Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which recommended a comprehensive and aggressive policy of regime change. Given his previous efforts to roll back the Cuban Revolution, Gutierrez would seem the last person who would want to travel to Havana—let alone receive a visa from the Castro government.
Over the last year, however, Gutierrez—the Cuban-born son of a pineapple-plantation owner who rose to be CEO of Kellogg—has become the highest-profile convert to President Obama’s policy of engagement. “Today, we have an opportunity to actually help the Cuban people. We shouldn’t let the opportunity pass,” Gutierrez said in a recent interview, adding: “I would ask any opponent of normalization to visit Cuba. I believe they will reach the conclusion that the Cuban people are the biggest losers [in] the policy of Cuba isolationism.”
On the first anniversary of the dramatic breakthrough in US-Cuban relations, key figures like Gutierrez have begun to provide political cover for Republican businesspeople and politicians, whose support will be pivotal to President Obama’s ultimate goal of lifting the US trade embargo and fully normalizing relations.
“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” Obama declared last January during his State of the Union address to Congress, where GOP leaders remain opposed to lifting the decades of economic sanctions and travel restrictions. Over the past year, Obama has employed his executive powers to open the flow of commerce, culture, and travel between the United States and Cuba, advancing his pledge on December 17, 2014, to “cut loose the shackles of the past.” During his last year in office, Obama will attempt to make his historic reconciliation with the Cuban Revolution an irreversible element of US foreign policy.
Indeed, the White House has accelerated the pace of bilateral talks with Raúl Castro’s government. In recent weeks, Washington and Havana have signed two new bilateral accords: an environmental collaboration designed to identify and protect marine sanctuaries and coral reefs, and a long-awaited agreement to resume direct postal service. A third agreement, to normalize aviation travel and restore direct flights between the two nations, may be announced soon.
In the 12 months since Castro and Obama stunned the world by announcing a prisoner swap and a new era of diplomatic engagement, there has been a flurry of activity to move toward more normal relations. The two presidents have twice met face-to-face—a historic first meeting at the April Summit of the Americas in Panama, and then in New York during the UN General Assembly in late September. Obama has also talked with Castro on the telephone three times, establishing a bilateral connection at the highest level.