“My parents were initially enthusiastic supporters of Castro and the hope he represented, but as it became clearer that Cuba was moving toward a communist dictatorship, they grew disillusioned with the regime, but had not shared their feelings with me. A big surprise for me was when school was dismissed for the Bay of Pigs invasion, and I could tell my parents were hoping the invasion would succeed in overthrowing Fidel.”
Professor Lino Gutierrez is a Cuban-American adjunct professor at GW and one of the Elliott School’s many hidden gems. A former U.S. Foreign Service officer, he has served as the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and Argentina. He has been openly criticized by Fidel Castro on Cuban national television for his support for Cuban dissidents. Not only is he the most interesting professor I have had at GW, he has some fascinating insights into the development of US-Cuban relations.
Obama’s initiative seeks to “normalize” relations with Cuba for the first time in 50 years. Many Americans seem to think this means that the island is now a spring break option- but be sure to get there fast before ‘everything changes.’ Not only is this perception inaccurate, it overlooks some major complications to the normalization process. This is how Guiterrez would respond to someone that says they need to get to Cuba before it becomes a ‘tourist trap’:
“That’s a very American way of looking at things- that cultures should be preserved in their ‘pristine states.’ The average income in Cuba is $25 per month. Cubans want to see investments in jobs. If it’s a new McDonalds that opens up and gives people jobs, who are we to say no?”
He reminded me that not everyone was excited about Obama’s initiative. Some Cuban Americans have been vocal in their opposition to normalization. That’s because the Cuba that they left behind is the same Cuba with the same leaders. Cuban Americans don’t want to see President Obama watching baseball with Raul Castro because he still denies that there are ongoing civil and human rights violations.
“To the American public, normalization seems like a good idea. The embargo was supported at the UN by only the U.S. and Israel. But the average American knows little about the repression and beatings of human rights activists that is actually increasing. If they took a closer look at the situation, they would see that the regime has not fundamentally changed.”
Professor Gutierrez points out that he is not opposed to the normalization effort, but he would like to see the U.S. be tougher on democracy and human rights with the Cuban government. The U.S. has recognized Cuba, increased remittances, and eased travel bans, but we have seen no major concessions from Cuba. Furthermore, the number of detentions and arbitrary arrests in Cuba have only increased. Obama claims to be empowering the Cuban people, but Gutierrez is skeptical. He is in support of an empowered Cuban people with the help of the US, but he fears that Obama’s policies are more about leaving a legacy and less about Cuban citizens.
“President Obama is popular [in Cuba] because he’s bringing the possibility of change. There are people walking around in American flag t-shirts. Does that equate to change, democracy, and civil society? No.”
President Obama’s efforts may not directly translate into a more democratic Cuba, but they may help to create an environment for change. The future of U.S.- Cuban relations will depend on who takes office in 2016. Gutierrez believes that Hillary Clinton would continue the initiative but demand more Cuban concessions from the Cuban government. “Hillary will be tougher,” he says. From her recent statements, Secretary Clinton has indicated that she would fight for freedom and democracy in Cuba. Sanders has been less critical of the Cuban regime, although he recently said he favors a democratic Cuba. As for the republicans, “Cruz is likely to stop the initiative altogether” and “Trump probably would not break off the initiative, but he would claim that he could have negotiated it better.”
I asked if he would encourage a student to visit Cuba given the circumstances.
“Yes, I would. I support contacts between the American and Cuban peoples. I would just urge students to keep an open mind and look beyond the propaganda show. But if it’s only about going to the beach, and not about learning about a repressive society, then Cancun may be a better destination.”