Tom Donohue, U.S. Chamber Chief, on the Cuba Question

Tom Donohue, U.S. Chamber Chief, on the Cuba Question
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The news that strongman Fidel Castro was essentially stepping aside after more than a half-century in power raised anew the question of the economic sanctions imposed on Cuba by the U.S. Because of the large and potent Cuban exile population in South Florida, the lifting of sanctions has long been considered a political third rail. So even with an eager market just miles off the coast of America, U.S. business has been (somewhat) patiently waiting for the Castro regime to fade away. With Fidel's 76-year-old brother Raúl expected to take power, the wait may not be over. Yet some, like Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spy an opening. The tough-talking Donohue has led the Chamber for more than 10 years, and he doesn't mince words when it comes to sanctions or the fiery issue of immigration—a topic at the top of the business agenda.


With Fidel Castro stepping aside, is it time to roll back economic sanctions against Cuba?


The U.S. has tried one way of doing this thing for more than 50 years, and it doesn't seem to work. We have basically kept Castro in power. I've been to Cuba. It is clear to me that he used sanctions as a means to stay in power. I understand the domestic political issues, though…the movement from one generation to the next is basically going to solve much of that problem. But I really think it's time for America to say: "Why can't we let free markets and free people resolve the Castro problem?" He's leaving office. If his brother comes into office, it'll be for a short period of time because he is also an elder person. I just think this is a window of opportunity for us.

What would the upside be if sanctions were lifted?When I was in Cuba, I talked at length with dissidents, and their belief is if you take the sanctions away, you take away all the excuses for the way their government behaves. I'm not being critical of the Bush people, nor was I critical of the Clinton people. This is not about any particular President or any particular Congress. This is about a mentality that developed in the U.S. following the Cuban missile crisis that has not been politically comfortable for any Administration to resolve. It was always going to get better tomorrow. Well, it hasn't gotten better tomorrow.

Will Raúl Castro change the equation?I don't think he has Fidel's charisma, but he's a very tough guy and runs the military. If people don't think there is some serious future for them going forward in Cuba and if the brother is more stringent than we would hope, then you're going to see a whole lot of people trying to get to the U.S. But there are a couple of things we could do right now. If we said there can be regular and frequent visits between family members—if we just did that, we would demonstrate a certain amount of common sense and humanity, and I think we'd be taking a step in the right direction. All you have to do is go over to Cuba and watch how the Spanish, the French, the Latin Americans, and everybody else on the globe are building resorts or trying to invest, and we're sitting here with a 50-year-old policy that doesn't work.

What are the barriers to lifting the sanctions?Everybody believes that lifting sanctions could tilt the election in Florida. I don't know if that's true because there are so many young Cubans who think it's time to do this. But O.K., fine, wait until after the election and then do it. Bush could open it up right after the election. He'd do his successor, Democrat or Republican, a favor.

Among your members, which industries are most eager to see the sanctions lifted?Obviously, people in the tourism trade, people in the agricultural business. But just about every industry could benefit for the simple reason that there is such pent-up demand. Look at the cars they're running—Jack Kennedy was in office when half of them were sent down there.

Are economic sanctions ever an effective tool?In my opinion, unilateral sanctions never work.

Let me ask you about the election. Which candidate is most attractive to business?We are vigorously engaged in the elections for the Senate and the House and for state Supreme Court justices. The Chamber doesn't favor a candidate in the Presidential election. Somebody's going to win, and we've got to deal with them, and they're going to have to deal with us. If I let this place get into Presidential preferences, we'd have a zoo around here.

Which candidate's immigration plan is most palatable to business?To me that's clear: John McCain. The bottom line is we've got 77 million people getting ready to retire. We have farmers in California moving to Mexico to run their farms because they can't get workers. We run out of H-1B visas for high-tech workers in the first couple of months of the year. We have the lowest unemployment we've had in a long time, and many of the people looking for jobs live in places where there aren't jobs, and they aren't prepared to move. The argument that immigrants are coming to take American jobs doesn't carry a lot of weight. We have more jobs than we've got people.

What about the argument that health-care costs are so high because of immigrants?We are a nation of immigrants. It is our single biggest strength. Our forefathers came here and, yeah, many of them came through Ellis Island, and it was legal, but a hell of a lot of them got here in all kinds of ways. I do think we need to protect our borders. You can write that down and underline it because we have challenges there. But if you try to come here from Mexico legally it could take 10 years, and we need workers. You send the 10 million or 12 million workers in this country home tomorrow—and I'm not saying give them amnesty—and this economy will absolutely crater, just stop. So we're going to continue to fight this thing. But three, four, five years from now it's going to take care of itself when members of Congress are getting calls every day, and their wives and husbands are getting calls, from nursing homes and assisted-living homes saying: "Come take mommy home." "What do you mean take mommy home?" "Well, we don't have people to take care of her."

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