A group of powerful businessmen and Cuban professionals worked quietly for a decade promoting a change of policy towards Cuba as it was finally announced by the White House on December 17.

The Cuba Study Group (CSG), a nonprofit organization that defines itself as apolitical and calls for "reconciliation" and "development of civil society in Cuba" helped "open the door of the closet" and create the political space that allowed Barack Obama to change the course of relations between the two countries, said its president, businessman Carlos Saladrigas.

Since its founding in 2000, the organization focused on finding "intelligent policies toward Cuba ... we realized that it was more important to help the Cuban people than trying to harm the government, because the Cuban people endure, governments change. And focusing on the Cuban people is more effective in the long run, to bring change to Cuba," Saladrigas said.

If the rhetoric seems similar to that used by the Administration to explain the new policy toward Cuba, it is not a coincidence.

"They were at the forefront of the creation of this policy change and I have no doubt that December 17 would not have happened without them and their years of work," said James Williams, director of the lobbying group Engage Cuba, which calls for the elimination of restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.

The CSG did not act alone. In fact, Williams, from his previous employment in the Trimpa Group – a political consultancy based in Denver – coordinated a campaign in 2014 to press for policy change, which many organizations and political actors joined, including the Cuba Study Group and other like-minded organizations such as Cuba Now, according to the authors of the book “Back Channel to Cuba, The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana,” as described in an article for Mother Jones magazine.

However, CSG’s involvement in promoting a new policy toward Cuba dates back to more than a decade prior to the campaign described in the article, although it intensified in 2009, after the election of Obama.

"They were the initial actors who took the risk and said the policy was not working and we had to look for something different, but they said it based on dialogue and research," said Ted Piccone, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and US-Cuba relations analyst.

"They were influential in several ways. First because of who they were: a group of Cuban-American business leaders" with "personal and business" experience which could "introduce new ideas to the debate and promote dialogue," he added.

Besides Saladrigas, president of Regis HR Group and former president of Premier American Bank, other prominent members include Alfonso Fanjul (President and CEO of Fanjul Corp. and Florida Crystals Corporation), former US ambassador to Belgium, Paul L. Cejas, César L. Álvarez (President and CEO of Greenberg Traurig LLP) and Roberto Goizueta (son of the former president of Coca-Cola). Cejas, Álvarez, and Fanjul are no longer part of the organization, but another member of the Fanjul family, Andrés Fanjul, remains on CSG’s board of directors.

Williams, meanwhile, stressed that the members of that organization "were incredibly smart and strategic in influencing the Cuban-American community and educating policy makers in Washington, DC on the changing support of Cuban Americans."

"They were the grandparents of this policy change and they deserve enormous credit," he says.

Who are "the grandparents"?

"The group started following the Elián González case based on the despair we felt that, as an opposition force for change in Cuba, we were still highly ineffective," says Saladrigas, who initially was against lifting the embargo unilaterally and criticized the Bill Clinton administration for its use of force to return the child to Cuba.

However, the organization soon broke away from the traditional positions of the Cuban exile and began studying ways to promote a more conciliatory policy; worked to establish partnerships with other organizations (for example, through their participation in the dialogue platform provided by the Catholic Church among exile organizations known as Cuban Consensus); and it pioneered proposals to provide support for the fledgling self-employed sector in Cuba as a way of strengthening civil society on the island.

From the beginning, their arguments were strongly questioned, both in Washington and Miami, where even protests were organized against the polls the group began to commission to, as Saladrigas says, "take the pulse of the exile (community)."

Headlining one of those marches, was then-Congressman Lincoln Díaz Balart, a powerful political rival who opposed the group’s ideas from the beginning.

Díaz-Balart was one of the architects of the policy that President Obama now wants to dismantle. From his position in the legislature, he said the agenda Saladrigas and the group he was presiding was perceived as "commercial," motivated by the desire to "do business with the regime ... and was always very limited in its effectiveness."

However, the more moderate discourse of the organization certainly resonated with the ideas of the then senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who in his 2004 campaign had already declared that "it is time to remove the embargo on Cuba ... that has failed completely in the effort to overthrow Castro, who has been there since I was born," but then he promised the opposite in a campaign event at the headquarters of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which also called for the lifting of sanctions on travel and remittances imposed by the George W. Bush administration.

Saladrigas claims some credit on this last point ("I was able to provide advice on what to include in that speech") as the group called for the reunification of Cuban families, though he was not the only one, because CANF also called for amending these restrictions, especially to send humanitarian aid to Cuba after the passage of hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008.

"We talked about Cuba and we saw the need for a change in policy, because we were already convinced that the embargo, far from helping to change Cuba, was offering free and undue legitimacy to the Cuban government."

It would not be the only meeting with President Saladrigas, who donated about $10,000 for his two campaigns.

"When he was elected president they invited me as a candidate for a post in the administration and I had the opportunity to go to Chicago to see him when he had not yet taken office. When I arrive at the meeting, the first thing he tells me is 'I am very aware of the work of the Cuba Study Group and I owe my presidency to the work you have done in Miami' ... We spent almost the entire interview talking about Cuba and the need to change US policy toward Cuba."

The opportunity to "present our views and the data we obtained from surveys to him and his staff I think had a big impact in allowing this White House to feel it had more freedom to enact the different policies toward Cuba he has implemented," he said. 

The White House confirmed in a statement that "the Administration has worked closely over the years with stakeholders in the Cuban-American community, including the Cuba Study Group, as part of our ongoing effort to improve relations between the US and Cuba . We appreciate your work to help build support for policy changes."

The role of surveys

Although President Raúl Castro said at the UN that the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States was the result of "56 years of heroic and selfless resistance of our people," in more ways than one, the policy change had more to do with Cubans who left the country and settled in Florida.

In the backdrop of the measures announced by Obama on December 17, the fight over the rhetoric about demographic change in the Cuban-American community and their support or lack thereof a new policy within this group was key in this story.

At that point, CSG’s work allowed the debate to be "free of the straitjacket" and "draw attention to the change of the Cuban-American community in Florida and the surveys taken at FIU [the Florida International University]. That was a very important signal that the winds were changing," says Piccone.

Since the beginning of the last decade, the group began to commission surveys "showing that the Cuban-American community was evolving, it was not monolithic, things we now take as a fact, but I remember being in the campaign of George W. Bush or Mel Martínez, these were things that were discussed," said the executive director of CSG, Tomás Bilbao.

"We conducted them for many years, then others made them, the Miami Herald, FIU and together these surveys gave the American politicians the idea that the exile (community) in fact was changing and that began to pave the way for positions that might not have been imaginable before this change in the Cuban exile community was known," says Saladrigas.

In 2007 and 2008, the group financially supported surveys that two professors at FIU, Guillermo Grenier and Hugh Gladwin, had been doing since 1991. Throughout the years, the study also counted on the assistance of the Brookings Institution, The Miami Herald, The Sun Sentinel, the Christopher Reynolds Foundation and in 2014, the Trimpa Group and the Open Society Foundation.

"I'm reporting what is happening in the population, do not shoot the messenger," Grenier says emphatically in his office at FIU. "My interest has been looking at the changes in the Cuban population. I'm not a political pollster," the sociologist explained, while stressing that many of the questions have remained almost unchanged, to study trends over time.

According to a source close to the campaign coordinated by the Trimpa Group, and who asked to speak under the condition of anonymity, one of the cornerstones of the campaign was that it moved to shift the debate towards a place that would be acceptable for Cubans, so that the choice was not between supporting the exile (community) or supporting the regime in Havana – and also away from traditional leftist organizations in the US sympathetic to Cuba – but to focus on advocating for a new approach to the lack of results of the sanctions policy in promoting democratic change on the island.

It was therefore important, he adds, (to ask) questions that would measure not only attitudes towards the embargo but also to policies that could replace sanctions with increased support for the self-employed and exert pressure on the issue of human rights.

The latest FIU survey includes a similar question and Grenier confirms that it came from the dialogue with the co-sponsors from Trimpa, which is not unusual in these cases but insists that most of the survey should remain very similar to ensure that the results are comparable.

The professor, who said he was unaware of the campaign coordinated at that time by the Trimpa Group, highlighted the nuances that the study brings to light: "The interesting thing is that even in 1991 people wanted to send medicines, and that was interesting from the start that people wanted to maintain relationships with individuals on the island and ... that has increased even though the issue is still almost 50-50."

But Díaz-Balart, now a political adviser, remains skeptical about these arguments and questions to what extent the surveys accurately reflect the opinions of the embargo.

"If you ask the Cuban if he supports the three conditions we put in the law, namely, the release of all political prisoners, the legalization of all political parties and call for multi-party elections, they say yes. What happens is that the questions raised by this group [CSG] and others, never included the three points and they are in the law, they are not theoretical," says Díaz-Balart.

When "the respondent is informed of what is in the law" support for the embargo is "overwhelming," he continues. "It's all about the questions," he says.

As an academic, Grenier believes that "you cannot educate at the same time you ask, (otherwise) that's a push poll. I want to know if you are in favor of the embargo or not." While he understands critics’ concerns, he explained that the methodology of the survey is public, so they can replicate it, he suggests: "That is social science. Here are the questions. Do it".

With polls in hand, their experience in the field of Cuban "self-employment" and a legal study on the executive authority of the President to amend the policy towards Cuba, the group then concentrated on persuading the White House that it was time to act.

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