June 23, 2015
Washington — I WAS born in Havana in November 1953, about six years before Fidel Castro led a revolution in Cuba. In July 1960, my family fled to the United States in search of freedom. Like many Cubans, they left behind close relatives, a business, property and memories. We lost everything.
My parents’ decision to seek exile in the United States has been the single most important event of my life. Thanks to their vision, and the safety and opportunity of this country, I have achieved personal and professional success beyond anything I could have imagined as a 7-year-old refugee in Miami. I became a citizen, embraced my life as a new American and fell in love with the New York Yankees.
Like many fellow Republicans and Cuban-Americans, I was critical whenPresident Obama announced in December 2014 that his administration would begin to normalize ties between the United States and Cuba. After years of hostility and failed attempts at détente, I wondered: Did the Cuban government really want better ties with America, or was this simply another chess move in a tired game? After all, Mr. Obama is not the first president to try to change the relationship with Cuba — Mr. Castro’s revolution has outlived 10 American administrations.
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.
My 30-year career at the Kellogg Company taught me that, at its best, business can have a transformational and uplifting impact on communities and whole societies. It is because of that belief that I have always been proud to call myself a Republican.
As secretary of commerce in the administration of George W. Bush, I was a voice for American business abroad and saw firsthand that our private sector could be the best ambassador for American values, such as the power of free enterprise to raise living standards and the importance of being free to work where one chooses.
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.
It has now been six months since Mr. Obama’s policy shift was announced. Both governments have confirmed plans to open embassies, and negotiations have covered a variety of issues, including the extradition of American fugitives who fled to Cuba. Almost every week a new congressional delegation lands in Havana. From a government-to-government perspective, there has not been so much communication between the United States and Cuba in 50 years. I never expected negotiations to get this far.
On the business side, scores of Americans have begun to travel to Cuba under expanded licenses. American credit card companies have been authorized to handle transactions in Cuba. Some of the most innovative companies in the world, like Airbnb and Netflix, have begun to offer their services in Cuba. The New York Cosmos soccer team has played exhibition matches on the island, and the National Basketball Association has sponsored a workshop in Havana.
Some presidential candidates, including the Cuban-American senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have argued that Mr. Obama has conceded too much. The truth is that the changes so far have been incremental and this will be a long and gradual process.
Contrary to popular belief, President Obama’s executive actions do not allow for free and open commerce with Cuba, nor do they open the doors for Americans to visit the island as tourists; the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 codified the embargo that prohibits most American companies from undertaking transactions with Cuba, and travel remains restricted. Rather, the reforms have allowed some American companies and individuals to engage in limited additional activities in Cuba.
Perhaps most critical among these activities has been granting Americans the right to support a new generation of Cuban-born entrepreneurs and Cuban-run small businesses. This move is a logical response to a change allowed by the Castro regime in recent years. These small-business owners and their employees will need tools, supplies, building materials and training in accounting, logistics and other areas. The new reforms allow American citizens and businesses to address such needs, and I am hopeful the Cuban government will allow its citizens to take full advantage of their assistance.
Cubans yearn not only for these interactions but also for a time when they can enjoy opportunities to chart their own course in life without having to leave their home, as I did 55 years ago.
There are those who will always wish for the past, whether it is pre-Castro Cuba or the days before the current rapprochement. Some of my fellow Cuban-Americans insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people because it will lead to democracy. 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.
America must look to the future instead — and pursue this opportunity to assist Cubans in building a new economy. There is a lot of work to do, and progress will be slow. However, the business community and my fellow Cuban-Americans and Republicans should not ignore the possibilities ahead. The Cuban people need and deserve our help.