An alliance of powerful anti-embargo Cuban-American businessmen frayed earlier this year after its prominent chairman, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, returned from Cuba with a simple request: work more closely with Raúl Castro’s communist government.
Behind Gutierrez’s ask was an indication that the Cuban government was eager to negotiate directly with major American corporations — and less enthused by U.S. efforts to assist small-time entrepreneurs on the island.
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Gutierrez’s idea riled some members of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, a group launched last year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a key U.S.-Cuba player — to forge economic and trade relationships between the once-estranged countries. Gutierrez’s detractors questioned the wisdom of aligning the council so firmly with the interests of the Cuban government and of big corporations — at the expense, they feared, of the Cuban people.
The tense disagreement exploded in a conference call over the summer among the council’s board members, who in some cases lashed out at each other using harsh language, several people on the call told the Miami Herald. In the end, three Cuban Americans on the board — Vice-Chairman Mike Fernández, Joe Arriola and John McIntire — quit.
“There was a big fallout,” acknowledged Arriola, the Miami-Dade County Public Health Trust chairman. “Carlos was very much into bringing businesses to partner with the Cuban government, and we were not. We decided to get out. There is nothing wrong with it — we just didn’t agree with it.”
Arriola declined to describe the contentious conference call in detail, saying only: “It was just too many Cubans together.”
Fernández, chief executive of MBF Healthcare Partners, and McIntire, senior adviser to the entrepreneurship nonprofit Endeavor Global, declined to comment. Gutierrez, chairman of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, was traveling and unreachable over several days this week and last, according to his assistant. A Republican, he served as commerce secretary under President George W. Bush but endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton this year and starred in a TV ad for her campaign.
The Chamber declined to provide a list of council members, saying the organization doesn’t discuss those matters. A Chamber spokesperson said membership “is voluntary and constantly evolving, and the Council’s long-term objective — to create a barrier-free economic and commercial partnership between the United States and Cuba — remains consistent.”
The split among the former allies is striking because they presented such a united front following President Barack Obama’s surprise December 2014 announcement to renew diplomatic relations in Cuba. A year later, in December 2015, Gutierrez, Arriola, Fernández and McIntire were part of a group made up largely of diehard political conservatives who quietly traveled to Havana. They returned and published an open letter — which ran as a full-page advertisement in the Miami Herald — denouncing the U.S. trade embargo and urging Cuban Americans to reconsider their hardline stance against U.S. engagement.
“We didn’t really have a political objective,” Gutierrez told the Herald at the time. “What we see is an opening to see Cuban entrepreneurs, to help the Cuban economy in a way that benefits the average Cuban, and we’d like to see how we can help.”
Many of the men went back to Havana in March for Obama’s historic visit, reveling in the fledgling U.S.-Cuba relationship and feeling hopeful about things to come. Gutierrez had been elected the council’s chairman in February.
Several months after that trip, however, Gutierrez’s new approach for the council marked too significant a shift for many of his friends. For years, their mantra has been to work directly with the Cuban people, minimizing benefits to the regime — an admittedly challenging task in a communist system. Since Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, the Obama administration has tried to accelerate the completion of larger corporate agreements that would be more difficult for the new White House to undo.
McIntire in particular was in a position at odds with the council’s new direction: The Connecticut resident heads the Cuba Emprende Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for and advises the Cuban Catholic Church’s project to train new small businesspeople. The program and its boosters have at times been a thorn in the Cuban government’s side.
Even as they’ve tried to limit their dealings with the government, advocates like Arriola, Fernández and others have faced withering criticism from other Miami Cuban-Americans who believe even talking to Castro’s regime without the promise of political freedoms is unacceptable. Their break with Gutierrez shows not all pro-engagement activists are willing to go quite as far as others in negotiating with Cuba.
The way Arriola, Fernández and McIntire left the board was by letting their council memberships expire, Arriola said. Other Miami Cuban-Americans remain: Businessman Ariel Pereda is a council member, Norwegian Cruise Line President and Chief Executive Frank Del Río is a board vice-chairman, and attorney Ralph Patino is on the board. Pereda did not respond to an email requesting an interview. Del Río declined to comment through a company spokeswoman.
“We’ve all been trying to achieve the same objective, which is greater community engagement with Cuba,” said Miami attorney Ralph Patino, who remains on the council board. He declined to elaborate on the events of earlier this year, adding: “I don’t want to start another rift.”