WASHINGTON – Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Wednesday it would be a "great disservice" for the Cuban people if the United States eased economic and political ties with the island in the post-Fidel Castro era.
"Cuba is at a critical point in its history," Gutierrez said. "The country is poised for change. The policy of the Bush administration has been to help the Cuban people achieve their freedom through democratic change."
The United States, he said, must not legitimize a successor regime by "helping it maintain its tight grip over the Cuban people."
Gutierrez serves as co-chairman of an official commission which made recommendations for Cuba policy after Castro passes from the scene. He spoke to the Council of the Americas, a pro-business group.
Gutierrez's speech was devoted mostly to the plight of the Cuban people under the system Castro created 48 years ago. He omitted any reference to Castro's brother Raul, who has served as acting president since the 80-year old leader fell ill last July.
"The embargo is not the problem or the solution," Gutierrez said. "The problem is the repressive communist system. The solution is to change the system."
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday that previewed his speech, Gutierrez said, "Now isn't the time to ease the restrictions" on U.S. ties with Cuba.
But there has been growing interest in a reassessment of policy toward Cuba following Castro's illness and the emergence of the emergence of a Democratic-controlled Congress. The centerpiece of U.S. policy is the 45-year-old U.S. trade embargo.
"There is growing momentum and broad support for a new approach toward U.S.-Cuba policy among members of the U.S. business and agriculture communities, as well as key policymakers," said Jake Colvin, director of USA Engage, a group that opposes economic sanctions as a political tool. He spoke to a forum on Cuba in Washington last month.
Also, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have introduced legislation to lift all restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba.
"Far from hastening democratic reforms, our current policy has given Fidel Castro a convenient scapegoat for his own regime's failures," Flake said. "With the Cuban government taking new shape, we shouldn't give the new leader the same excuses we've given the old one."
In the interview, Gutierrez said Castro has tried to blame the United States for the country's economic problems but that Castro's own policies are responsible.
"This isn't about American policy. It's about Cuban policy," he said. He added that he sees little prospect for change in Cuba under Raul Castro, who has been acting president since his elder brother fell ill in late July.
"There is nothing in his past to suggest that he (Raul) is a reformer," Gutierrez said.
Interest in Cuba comes naturally to Gutierrez, who was born in Havana and left Cuba at age six for Florida with his family. Now 53, he joined President Bush's cabinet in 2005 after serving as chairman of the board and CEO of the Kellogg Co.
Gutierrez sought to put to rest the notion among Cuban officials that the United States is intent on recapturing the dominant role it played on the island before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
"We have no plans to confiscate any property," he said. "We have no military plans. Our goal is to be of help. We know we can be of help. The destiny of Cuba is in the hands of Cubans on the island, not people in Washington or someplace else."
The official U.S. policy is maintain current restrictions on diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba until the country takes credible steps toward a transition to democracy.