Carlos M. Gutierrez is about as unlikely an ally President Obama could possibly find in his move to thaw relations with Cuba. An old-school Cuban-American Republican, Gutierrez spent four years as George W. Bush's commerce secretary, loudly blasting the Castro regime and helping Bush craft his hard-line stance on the embargo.
Yet the Havana-born businessman has done an about-face this morning. In a prime slot on the New York Times' opinion page
, Gutierrez writes he now has "hope" that Obama's move will "actually help the Cuban people."
"I believe that it is now time for Republicans and the wider American business community to stop fixating on the past and embrace a new approach to Cuba," Gutierrez writes.
It's truly a startling turnaround for a powerful Cuban-American who only five years ago was a leading voice in the White House urging ever stronger sanctions against Castro.
Born in Havana, Gutierrez fled with his family to Miami when he was 7 years old, soon after Castro's revolution. Like many Cubans of his generation, he became a staunch anti-Communist and die-hard Republican. He went on to become the youngest CEO in the history of food giant Kellogg's before Dubya named him commerce secretary in 2005.
Gutierrez was a point man for Cuba policy. In 2008, as Cuba made headlines for opening up cell and internet service, he urged stronger sanctions in response.
"Their 'momentous' announcement of changes — that people can buy cell phones and a computers and stay in hotels, are the best news opposition leaders have had in years because they reveal a true picture of life inside the island," he told the Miami Herald
at the time. "The more changes they announce, the more people around the world will realize what a terrible system that is."
So what's changed? Gutierrez admits that at first he was critical of Obama's move. But the early returns have altered his thinking.
"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," he writes in the Times this morning
Gutierrez points to companies like Airbnb and Netflix moving into the island as evidence that Obama's initiatives will foster business growth without further empowering Castro. Only economic growth will topple the backwards government, he argues, taking a swipe at Marco Rubio in the process.
"Some of my fellow Cuban-Americans insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people because it will lead to democracy," he writes. "I wonder 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."
Gutierrez, who today serves as a trustee at the University of Miami, writes that his "fellow Cuban-Americans and Republicans should not ignore the possibilities ahead."