Because of the attention being paid to relations with Cuba, HUMAN EVENTS Editors John Gizzi, Thomas Winter and Allan Ryskind interviewed former Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who came to the U.S. from Cuba as a child in 1960.
HUMAN EVENTS: Mr. Secretary, what was your immediate reaction to the Obama Administration’s decision to lift the ban on travel to Cuba by relatives of citizens there?
Gutierrez: We just can’t do this on a unilateral basis and, depending on how Castro responds, the Obama Administration could find itself in a bind. In return for relatives being permitted to visit Cuba as often as they want, we have asked Cuba to take away the 20% remittances that Castro charges visitors bringing money to Cuba and to lift the barriers on satellite TV and cell-phone transmission. The Castro government is not going to like that and how Havana responds will say a lot. Right now, the ball is in their court.
HE: And how did you feel about the meeting that the Congressional Black Caucus had with Castro days before the travel ban was lifted?
Gutierrez: I thought the caucus was incredibly naïve, particularly when Castro spoke so highly of Martin Luther King to them. His regime has a terrible record on race relations and Afro-Cubans have done very poorly under Castro. Of the 30-or-so members of the top echelon of his government, the only Afro-Cuban is a man named Almeida and he is someone who has known Castro all his life. I was also disappointed that the Black Caucus did not bring up human rights violations or the treatment of prisoners, and did not meet with any dissidents.
HE: The Castro revolution turned 50 years old this year and we’ve all seen the films of the tanks coming into Havana and Batista leaving a New Year’s Eve party to flee the country. How was your family affected by the events of 1959?
Gutierrez: We left in July of 1960. My father was 40 years old at the time and he was an up-and-coming young entrepreneur in the pineapple business and he had just moved into a new home. Eventually he realized that he was considered an enemy of the state … and that the tactic they were using was to meet with business people to tell them that they wanted to buy the business. At one of those meetings, my father had a bad discussion with one of those folks and he was actually put in jail for three days. Fortunately, he knew someone who let him out and we were on a plane as soon as he got out. That was July of 1960 and by then it was becoming obvious, although he hadn’t yet declared it publicly, that Castro was a Marxist/Leninist. So, the whole family left. It was one of those experiences that shape your life.
HE: How have the Castro brothers outlasted just about every totalitarian regime in the world except for North Korea, China and Burma?
Gutierrez: That’s a great question, but not a simple question . I would say it was a combination of smarts, charisma and ruthlessness … all to an extreme. Someone once described Castro as that rare combination of a juvenile delinquent and a genius, and it’s been through that unique mix that he has been able to stay in power. Tremendously Machiavellian, tremendously clever, tremendously shrewd and then tremendously talented, he can give a riveting three-hour speech, which he did almost every day. If it weren’t for Fidel, I don’t think the revolution would have lasted as it did.
HE: And, of course, the Soviet Union bailed them out?
Gutierrez: The Soviet Union came to the rescue in 1961-62, and that gave them some cover. Now, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev was, “you leave Castro alone, and we’ll leave Castro alone.” It was, essentially an agreement that the United States would not attack Cuba. Whether the United States would have attacked Cuba, or not, I don’t know. Because after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, all of these things played into Castro’s hand. In Cuba, at that time, the high-income, well-educated tended not to be engaged in politics. It was almost like, “I’ll leave that up to the fighting masses, because that’s their thing.” Cuba wasn’t a Jeffersonian democracy. There was a lot of corruption and a lot of patronage, so it wasn’t uncommon to find someone who went where the patronage was. There was not any political stability to speak of, which Castro, of course, took advantage of.
HE: Was Batista as virulently corrupt as it was played up to be here in the United States, or do you think he was corrupt, but not so horrendous?
Gutierrez: I would say, in today’s world, it would have been similar to in Mexico under the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional or Institutional Revolutionary Party). Not as bad as Afghanistan, not as bad as Iraq.… It was a Latin American society and, granted, very successful in that regard—the first international TV transmission, the first international phone call, the first international flight. But, there was a tremendous gap between people who had and people who didn’t have.
By the time Batista came in, he actually was quite popular. But when he took over the last time in 1952, he canceled the election and denied the country democracy. He was despised in that regard, but under Batista the country grew. It was a very happy society. Yes, there was poverty, but people worked, there was entrepreneurialism, and the best hotels in the world. It was well ahead of other Latin American countries…
HE: According to the University of Miami’s Cuban Transition Project, Cuba’s unpaid debt to Russia from the Soviet era is $22 billion, to China $1.7 billion, and to post-Soviet Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, $819 million, so far. Given the fact that it’s a scofflaw, why would anyone want to trade with Cuba?
Gutierrez: I think part of the attractiveness to Cuba is the anti-Americanism part. If you help Cuba, to some extent, you are hurting the U.S. It gives political leaders a sense of a little bit of glamour. Throughout Latin America, Castro is still widely regarded among the masses. It’s actually very politically risky for a leader to go up against Castro. The only one who did was [former Mexican President] Vicente Fox, and boy, he got burned…
HE: We trade with China and Russia and all the others. Why would it be so terrible to relax the family remunerations and things of this sort? Especially since this regime might pass away, and we might want to be friendly with the new regime, and have some influence with them.
Gutierrez: The conventional wisdom is, look, if you lift the travel ban or let people send remittances, it can only be bad for Castro because more Cubans will travel to the island, they’ll be dressed well, and they’ll be able to tell their family members all that is fine and logical. But Castro knows that. Whatever is done, he’ll use it to his advantage. So, at the airport, they’re going to be taxed a tremendous amount, which gives him dollars. They’ll be allowed to stay at hotels that Cubans aren’t allowed to visit. They’ll be searched and anything that looks like a computer will be seized. There isn’t going to be a stealth revolution where we’re sending in people to actually overthrow the regime.
We’ve had ten Presidents, they’ve all tried something and you can just see Obama, like President Carter, seeing himself as the one who took the relationship to a new level. Carter did everything he could to make Cuba his China. At one point he was pressuring Castro to release political prisoners. This was what led to the Mariel Boat Lift, and finally Castro said, “Of course, you can have your boats come over and pick up our people.” He basically emptied out 125,000 people. A lot of these, of course, were criminals. The worst criminals.…
HE: But people ask, what is the great harm in lifting the bans? There is, of course, the alliance with Chavez in Venezuela and Putin has talked about using Cuba as a base of some sort. And certainly that was the threat to us, but, nevertheless, maybe the bans are a good reason they are acting against us.
Gutierrez: Well, that is why some people say the embargo has not worked and my argument is that, of course, it has worked. What the embargo has done is that it has denied resources to the mortal enemy of our country. And, anytime he has had resources, the Cubans haven’t eaten more, or they haven’t had more basic goods, he’s just been able to create more mischief. He gives more money to the FARC guerrillas in Columbia and he sends armies to Africa.
HE: Is he still doing that?
Gutierrez: I think it’s more difficult today, because there’s just not that much [money] there. But whatever he can do, he will do. My understanding is that he sells intelligence, and he’s got one of the best intelligence outfits in the world. He sells intelligence to Iran. He sells intelligence to whoever is willing to buy intelligence. For as long as I’ve been in government, I found my meetings with our intelligence community to be very unproductive, because we don’t have people there [in Cuba]. Sometimes wonder if 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 Cubans were here.…
HE: Do we know what Venezuela is doing there? What the Russians are doing there?
Gutierrez: What makes it all so difficult, and this also is a testament to Castro’s success, is that we don’t have an intelligence finding on Cuba, so we cannot have authorized covert activities in Cuba. Part of that, frankly, is years of liberals being convinced that we and not Castro are the bad guys, which is unbelievable. You’ve got to remember that in the 1960s this guy had nuclear weapons, and he wanted to use them. That has now been proven! That was even crazy for Khrushchev and this is the guy who is still there!
HE: How is he trying to work in Latin America to promote left-wingers?
Gutierrez: He’s been able to put [Venezuela strongman Hugo] Chavez out in front with respect to the FARC. Chavez is probably his most effective tool and Chavez has been helping FARC. There are examples of FARC leaders going to Cuba for medical treatment. They give them the same treatment the Cuban leaders get…
HE: Chavez is seven to one in Latin American electoral contests for President. The most recent case is El Salvador. The only loss is Peru, where Alan Garcia came back over the Chavez candidate for President in ‘07. Is Castro directly involved with the same kind of people Chavez has backed successfully?
Gutierrez: Yes, although Castro doesn’t have resources. Chavez has the resources, but Castro is the strategic advisor. Do you remember the Sao Paulo Forum back in the early ’90s where the whole idea was “Let’s do revolution by using democracy’s tool instead of through armed struggle?” That was Castro’s idea, and the whole thing has played out. It’s remarkable, 20 years later, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia all following the same model. You get elected, you change the constitution. That goes back to the Sao Paulo Forum. That goes back to Castro. They almost pulled it off in Mexico. …
HE: How repressive is the regime today?
Gutierrez: Some estimates are that one-third of the country has been through their prison system for 20 years. They spy on each other and they get 20 years for signing a petition to have free elections. Twenty years for disagreeing, for saying, “Can we try something different?” They have a law called the pre-illegal activity law, a sort of “We know you want to commit a crime, so (we get you) before you do so.
It is called pre-emptive activity. I know about this because my hobby has been to learn about this country where I was born. I don’t think he was always a Communist. I think communism was a very clever, useful way of guaranteeing that he was on the opposite side of the U.S. Then Khrushchev came in and it all worked for him. It was his form of communism, but I do believe communism was No.2 on his list. He was first and foremost anti-American.