As Barack Obama contemplates the legacy of his consequential two-term presidency, aides in the West Wing of the White House can be heard using the word “irreversible.” They apply it to Obamacare, to the Iran nuclear deal, and now, increasingly, to the historic opening with Cuba announced one year ago.
It comes up when senior Obama aides argue that it will be impossible for his successor, should that person be a Republican, to make good on campaign promises to roll back some of this president’s signal achievements. Rolling back Obamacare, they argue, means taking health insurance away from millions of Americans. Unilaterally killing the nuclear agreement with Iran, they say, means breaking with key allies, as well as China and Russia, and rolling the dice on setting up a potential military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
And any effort to revive Cold War-born tensions with Cuba, they contend, could run headlong into the politically fraught opposition of people like Russell Sewell, a self-described “quite conservative” Republican.
The 63-year-old Ohio native is the CEO of Quality Switch, a Youngstown-area manufacturer of electrical switches and tap changers that employs roughly 35 people. Exports to countries like Australia, Canada, Colombia and Mexico account for roughly 30 to 40 percent of the family-owned firm’s sales. Sewell recently made his first-ever trip to Cuba, part of a delegation of lawmakers and businesspeople from Ohio, the vote-rich Midwestern state that has decided many a U.S. presidential contest. And the opportunities he saw there have convinced him that Obama’s opening to the socialist-run island “is good for everybody.”
“It would create more jobs, mean more revenue. For us, it would add additional work — for us, for our customers, the shipping people, the labor people,” Sewell told Yahoo News in a recent telephone interview. “It’s a big boom. It’s like opening up a whole new market, and there’s so much you can do.”
The spark that set off what is still only a potential “boom” came on Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama announced a dramatic shift in U.S.-Cuba relations, made possible by 18 months of secret diplomacy and unveiled along with Havana’s release of humanitarian agency contractor Alan Gross. Since then, the two countries have reopened long-closed embassies in each other’s capitals. The United States has removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Obama has called for lifting the six-decade-old trade embargo originally designed to drive Fidel Castro from power. The federal government has taken steps to make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and spend money there, and for Cuban-Americans to send money to relatives on the island.
President Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro before a meeting in September at U.N. headquarters. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
Obama has cast his new policy as better suited, ultimately, to help bring about democratic reforms and greater respect for human rights in Cuba.
“I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans,” he said last year. “But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.”
Obama enjoys the support of a handful of declared Republican allies, like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, on some aspects of his policy, like allowing all Americans to visit Cuba. But the GOP overall is generally opposed to the new overtures, and presidential candidates like Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have vowed to roll it back “ on day one” if they win the presidency.
Obama, Rubio charged in a speech in August, thinks “the Cuban people are suffering because not enough American tourists visit the country, when the truth is the Cuban people are suffering because they live in a tyrannical dictatorship.”
Rubio and other Republicans say that heavy reliance on executive action to bring about policy changes — interpreting existing law in a way that permits more Americans to travel to Cuba, for example — means that whoever takes over the White House in January 2017 could undo much of what Obama will have done.
The president’s aides dismiss the idea.
“Technically, could they reverse some things? Sure. On a practical, political level, could they? We don’t think that’s plausible,” a senior Obama aide told Yahoo News.
Secretary of State John Kerry and other dignitaries watch as Marines raise the U.S. flag at the reopened embassy in Havana. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool/AP)
“Is someone really going to close an embassy that’s already opened? That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” another official said in an interview in his basement office in the West Wing. “The travel ban was already unpopular enough. Once people are already traveling, it’d be a very strange thing for a president to come in and say, ‘Actually, you can no longer travel to Cuba.’ Oh, and by the way, that would royally piss off the airlines.”
Another hard-to-reverse policy has let Cuban-Americans send more money — so called remittances — than before to their relatives on the island.
“We’re going to tell Cuban-Americans, including some who may be more conservative, that ‘actually, I’m sorry you can no longer provide that level of support to your family’?” the second official scoffed.
Still, Obama aides acknowledge, there are a lot of variables that will shape whether the next president could undo what this president has wrought. The administration sees three phases to the policy, according to several officials. First, there were the secret negotiations that led to the dramatic Dec. 17, 2014, announcement. The second phase led up to the reciprocal opening of embassies and the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism — confidence-building measures that Obama hopes have set the stage for an ambitious third phase.
“Now, we have to show that that can lead to tangible, increased engagement, economic activity, people-to-people exchange, and improvement — at least raise expectations among the Cuban people — if not the beginnings of improvements in their lives,” the second official said. “That’s the task for the next year, together with the type of symbolic things that drive home that we’re in a new place. Whether that involves the president going [to Cuba] or just things like cultural or athletic [exchanges]…”
Obama has called on Congress to lift the entire U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which may be too much to ask of U.S. lawmakers while Fidel Castro lives. The White House has a better shot at easing, or removing, the legislation that prohibits all but a small number of Americans from traveling to Cuba. “That’s tough, but possible,” the second official said.
The future of the policy hinges in part on Cuban President Raúl Castro, who has taken over the reins from his revolutionary brother Fidel. Obama and top aides have repeatedly said that the socialist-run island that chose the Soviet Union over America won’t embrace democracy and human rights overnight.
But “there’s pressure” on the administration to be able to show at least some progress on that score, the second senior administration official acknowledged. Every crackdown on dissidents “makes every other part of this that much harder,” a Democratic congressional aide whose boss has taken a keen interest in Cuba policy told Yahoo News on condition of anonymity.
The loudest voices on Cuban human rights abuses — and against any closer ties with Havana — belong to Cuban-Americans, especially the vocal exile community in places like Florida or New Jersey.
So the White House has gone to great lengths to keep that community informed, to hear their concerns, and to try to enlist those who can be enlisted to support Obama’s policy.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson regularly host groups of 50 or so Cuban-Americans for lengthy question-and-answer sessions in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, then the National Security Council’s senior Western Hemisphere official, were the lead U.S. players in the secret diplomacy that led to the deal.
Some questions come up again and again. Will Obama change the law that allows Cubans who reach U.S. shores to stay? Officials have a firm answer: He will not. Will he go to Cuba next year? The same officials hedge, keeping the boss’s options open, though he has made it clear he wants to go.
Rhodes speaks roughly once per month, sometimes more, with Jorge Mas, the Cuban-American whose late father, Jorge Mas Canosa, led the hardline anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) group. CANF officials did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
White House officials say they still face considerable resistance from hard-liners in Florida, New Jersey and elsewhere, but that it’s tempered by Cuban-Americans who see opportunity in the outreach.
“My sense is the Cuban-American community, the last thing they want is for people other than them to be the ones investing,” a top Obama aide told Yahoo News.
One highly prominent Cuban-American who makes the same case is Carlos Gutierrez, who served as secretary of commerce under George W. Bush and now advises clients of the Albright Stonebridge Group.
Gutierrez used to oppose outreach to Cuba but had a change of heart — and now has a message for his fellow Republicans.
“Give this a chance,” Gutierrez said in a telephone interview with Yahoo News. “If you believe in free enterprise, and you believe in the power of free enterprise to lift up people’s lives, then why would you want to reverse this?”
Gutierrez urged fellow Cuban-Americans to model their approach on the way Chinese-Americans or Vietnamese-Americans handled improved relations with the United States.
“There are Chinese-Americans whose families fled the revolution who went back to make deals. There are Taiwanese with business interests in China. Vietnamese-Americans have interests in Vietnam,” he said. “Why can’t we, as Cuban-Americans, after 57 years, show a little more wisdom?”
The White House is also counting on several “natural constituencies” that tend to support the policy to help deepen economic relations and make a rollback that much harder — agricultural states and agribusiness, businessmen like Sewell who could help revitalize crumbling Cuban infrastructure, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“There has been consistent, constructive coordination with the White House,” Jodi Bond, the Chamber’s vice president for the Americas, told Yahoo News as she prepared to travel to Cuba. “What has occurred in a mere 11 months is far more dramatic than the general public may be aware.”
White House aides say that they have not had to lobby business that much to get interested and involved in the Cuba issue. If anything, one senior Obama adviser told Yahoo News, it’s the reverse, with top executives approaching the president himself at fundraisers to ask for help.
But the optimism remains fragile. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who took part in the delegation that got Sewell to Cuba, said the business executives on the trip worry about a reversal of fortunes if a Republican wins the White House.
“The Cubans too, it wasn’t just us. But especially if you’re a businessperson who wants to make a billion-dollar investment, there is some hesitation that this may not last forever,” Ryan told Yahoo News by telephone. “It may be just another year or so, and a Marco Rubio or someone else could come in and put the kibosh on it.”
In his August 2015 discussion of Cuba policy, Rubio was asked how he could plausibly roll back Obama’s overtures if, come Jan. 2017, U.S. business is booming there.
“I don’t think that is what’s going to happen,” he said, predicting that American companies would be scared off from making major investments by the Cuban government’s rules for doing business on the island.
Vintage cars pass by the Riviera hotel at the seafront Malecón in Havana. (Photo: Reuters)
“What American companies are going to find when they go to Cuba is, No. 1, a government that’s going to say, ‘Well, we’ll let you flag a hotel under your name, but it belongs to us, the workers work for us, you have no real ownership stake other than maybe 20 percent, but we’re the majority owner and everything and there is no property rights or contracts that can be enforced anywhere,’” he said. “And so I don’t think it’s going to be as quick as people think.”
One member of the delegation that included Ryan and Sewell said that the U.S. executives were more interested in selling to Cuba than building manufacturing facilities there. “Except for tourism, obviously. If you want to build golf courses, you can’t do that in Florida,” the person said on condition of anonymity.
“There’s a lot of opportunity there, but there’s also a lot of challenges there, mainly their banking system and financing,” Sean O’Brien, an Ohio state representative who was also on the trip, told Yahoo News.
“They can say, ‘Come here and we won’t tax you for X amount of years,’ but as far as saying to Company X, ‘Come down here, we’ll give you $10 million to help you build,’ they can’t do that,” he emphasized.
Still, O’Brien said, the relationship is going to change: “It’s going to happen, it’s going to change, and I think business will be the leader.”
Ryan said he pressed the business leaders on the delegation — all of them Republicans, he said — for their political support.
“That’s what I told all our guys when we went down there,” Ryan said. “You guys need to talk to senators, Republican congressmen, let them know really how important this is.”
Sewell, moments after describing how he rode around Havana in a car with a Czech body, a Hyundai engine, and 700,000 kilometers on the odometer, sounded ready to do just that.
“I don’t care if you’ve got a D or an R after your name, do what’s right,” he said. “This is good for everybody. I would think it’s going to help the people, it’s going to help business, it’s going to get the economy going. It’s what’s right.”
But O’Brien described a trip outside Havana that suggested another possible outcome. He rented a taxi for the day to visit a tobacco farm two hours from the Cuban capital.
“There was one striking thing: bridges that had no roads attached to them. There was one bridge, it goes over a four-lane highway, but it has no roads attached to it,” he said. “Someday it’ll connect to something.” Obama has done his part building those bridges after decades of enmity between the U.S. and Cuba. He’ll need businesspeople like Sewell — and the Cubans — to make sure that the roads get built.