Mike Kopetski, a former member of Congress, said the Trump administration should give up its “juvenile” approach toward Cuba and work toward improving diplomatic relations.
“We’re neighbors and neighbors should get along,” Kopetski said in an interview. “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and treat each other with respect. They are a sovereign nation and we are a sovereign nation. …Imposing sanctions here and there…didn’t work. Nearly 60 years of that approach did not work. So let’s try something different.”
Kopetski, a Democrat from Oregon, served in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 1995. After leaving Congress, he became an international trade consultant and worked mostly in Asia.
Kopetski and I were in Havana in December 2014 when former presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced that the two countries were renewing diplomatic ties. Students poured into the streets to celebrate that day. Kopetski joined them and I followed with a camera.
Five years later, I met Kopetski again and asked him some questions about Cuba. His remarks are below.
Cuba Money Project: So when did you start traveling to Cuba?
Mike Kopetski: The first time was December 2014. I was invited to this conference and decided why not, and I’d never been to Cuba before. And of course that was a very momentous, historic time in the U.S. to give a relationship. And, I keep getting invited back. You know, a former member (of Congress). I’ve had a long interest in Cuba and our relationship.
This is my sixth conference and I came here one other time with a group of former members of Congress.
So, this is my, I’ve been going every year since and, find it, as a learning experience in terms of watching the progress in the relationship, which was of course very positive under President Obama and Raul Castro. And I traveled the world and did a lot of work in China and Asia, and of course in the United States. And I enjoy getting out there with the people.
In China, I loved to go to the markets, learned a lot about negotiating styles with Chinese people, for one thing, and see how they live and how they got went through a dramatic transition in terms of their economic policies and enjoyed that. And, and saw, I wrote a paper my first visit here on, comparing U.S.-China relations and how we went about improving that relationship and similarities and challenges with trying to grow a relationship between Cuba and United States.
Cuba Money Project: How do you see the current state of U.S.-Cuba affairs?
Kopetski: Well, I think there’s two levels of it. I think that clearly Obama’s work, in that administration, had very positive influence on our neighbors and our neighborhood and gave, showed both Americans and Cuban folks that there is a different approach to bettering the relationship and, and trying to attain some of the goals on each side.
And of course with the President Trump’s administration, he is, as we have observed, it was an Obama change, which he challenged and withdrew some of the advances that were made and makes it much more difficult to have a dialogue between the two countries. At the second level of, as evidenced by this conference and continuing conference where it’s mainly academics on both sides, some lawyers, some politicians are involved and engaged. So, and that is still is a very strong and working, and it provides a platform for if, the administration changes some of its policies or if a new administration comes in, I think that, it’s a platform from which we don’t have to start over.
Cuba Money Project: And what would be the advantages, in your view, of trying again to have civil diplomatic relations?
Kopetski: That question came up this morning and I thought there’s a very simple answer. Why is it important to the average American? Why is it important to our nation? And it’s simply that we’re neighbors. We’re neighbors and neighbors should get along. And neighbors can help each other and in many ways and learn from each other and grow the relationship. But there, there’ll be challenges, there are challenges. There’s differences in political theory. And, so, that’s where we are at in this. And I think both sides have something to offer to each other and some ways which we have and continue to work together, whether with, drug interdiction issues, with terrorism, aspects that are involved in – You know, the world is smaller. And I think Cuba, for example, environmentally, they’ve actually protected their oceans.
And there’s 22 different MOUs (memoranda of understanding) relating to the environment and between where the two sides can work together on some common environmental issues. But the same is true that with the worldwide corruption. I’ve done a lot of work and in working with other parliaments around the world and one of the issues that I have, I raised – because I have experience in Indonesia for six years, where I lived, my wife and I lived there – and how endemic corruption has become throughout the world. These, this is a challenge that governments have to face. And I think, to its credit, Cuba has a very little corruption at the governmental level and but I think they are potential victims. That could spread here as things open up economically, if you will. So as, as I say, there, there’s ways that neighbors ought to be working together and it’s in our interest.
Kopetski: I’ve never had that because I think what happened during the Cold War was we wanted – we, the United States, wanted through various means – wanted the inside the Soviet Union folks to understand that there is another approach economically and to their lives. And so the more they get exposed to that, the better the chance that that change would come. And quite frankly, the Soviet experience was a 70-year experience. And if you look at it historically, as our Chinese friends would say, well, you know, you really don’t know whether it a change is good or bad. You have to wait 500 years, you know, but this is a 70-year experiment that didn’t work.
Cuba Money Project: So do you think the United States should get involved in Cuba’s political system in trying to determine what it should be? Cuba is a divided nation and there’s some two-million Cubans – people of Cuban heritage outside Cuba, many of them are in the United States. So does that kind of give the United States more of a right to get involved or do you think the United States should stay out of it?
Kopetski: I think there is something in between that because this is a sovereign nation. And I think as one of the panelists, spoke about, Professor Brenner, that, one of the reasons why the negotiations were a success at the government, the governmental level, was because we took a different approach and empathetic approach was the term used in that. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and treat each other with respect. They are a sovereign nation and we are a sovereign nation. They can learn from us. And I don’t think a heavy handed – imposing sanctions here and there – didn’t work. It didn’t work. Nearly 60 years of that approach did not work. So let’s try something different. And so I don’t think we can impose this on a nation, but hopefully they can come to some realities, I think, in terms of their own populace, in the appreciation of transparency, especially in government, the importance of a true, quality of the people being able to choose their electors and have choices and their representation in the parliament. It’s the people’s house and in some ways they appreciate that and you will find these democratic principles, but I think we’d prefer, we’d like to see them grow, raise them up to a higher, higher level. And that’s for them to determine how they do that and in what kind of time frame.
Kopetski: Well, I, you’d start with the, if you will, economics and we are, we returned to this punitive approach towards them, which certainly undermines their economy. However, it is not in our best interest. The population’s about same size as Pennsylvania. And, that’s a next-door market for us, whether it’s an agricultural infrastructure. We have great a lot to offer, especially with sustainable agriculture, which is, has seeds growing here on the island, in terms of looking at a port that they have and how it could grow into a regional economic center. So some of these, infrastructure developments are there, or in the process of developing. They’re being hindered by greatly by the embargo. So, what, and, you know, as an example, you see these classic old American cars here, but you also see cars from France.
The new cars are from France, and you see the buses that are carrying the tourists all over the island and they’re made in China. And I say to myself now, ‘How is this helping us? The United States?’ I mean, we can, we can sell buses, we can sell cars here, as well. So, you know, who are we punishing? And and so there’s that big challenge and the tourist industry is very important, but agriculture, they have some challenges with their land, but we have some ability to help them in that regard. And why aren’t we doing that? And, and I think that that will bring more economic stability.
You mentioned the unique relationship, if you will, in some respects with the number of Cuban-Americans and the strong sense of family that exists between that and there’s a lot of the Cuban-Americans back home, are great capitalists and, look, have been helping their new family’s origins do better. You know, they’re going to make money and they’re going to make money here and bring more stability. That’s been disrupted under this administration. And that’s a tragedy because it hurts us. It hurts them. So I think that either the Trump administration should look forward and get over this ‘we want to punish Obama or take away some of the advances that he’s made’ and get beyond that juvenile approach and come to a more adult responsibility, economically.