What Greg Abbott’s trip to Cuba says about his politics

Austin American-Statesman

By Jonathan Tilove

Cuban artist Jesús Nodarse Valdés was born a dozen years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. All of his life, his island has been the United States’ neighborhood pariah. So, when he found out that Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, was going to have dinner at his friend, Charles Farigola’s restaurant, La California in Old Havana, he was moved to finish a painting he had been working on, frame it and present it that night to Abbott after his dinner.

“A few years ago, I would have thought a Republican governor from Texas was the devil incarnate,” Nodarse said. But Abbott’s relaxed presence at a festive restaurant nestled on a dim side street in Old Havana, led him to see the Texas governor — and what he represents — in a new light.

For Texans too, their first term governor’s recent trade mission to Cuba may lead them to see him in a new light.

Abbott rose to power as a man whose stated vocation as attorney general was suing President Barack Obama. As governor, he has courted every opportunity to be the anti-Obama on Fox News. His Cuba trip was bracketed by his efforts to be the governor most defiantly opposed to the administration’s policy of resettling Syrian refugees in Texas or anywhere else in America.

But Abbott seized on Obama’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba to lead a business delegation to Havana. Abbott said he was there as Texas’ CEO, determined to extend the state’s 13-year streak as the top exporter in the nation.

During two days of back-to-back meetings with Cuban officials, Abbott didn’t lecture the Cubans or patronize them. Unlike New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who visited in April to much more fanfare, he did not placate the Cubans with a denunciation of the 55-year-old American embargo.

But Abbott’s trip was predicated on a realpolitik assessment that, sooner or later, the embargo is going to go away and that no state has more to gain from the Cuban market than Texas, whether it’s restoring the once robust export of agricultural products to the island, establishing Houston as a gateway city for commercial air travel to Cuba, or, ultimately, developing a lucrative energy trade, including providing the technology and know-how for Cuban oil exploration in the deep waters of the Gulf.

Business Development 101

 “It’s Business Development 101,” said Jorge Piñon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas, who left Cuba for Florida in 1960 at the age of 13. “Nobody expected him to come back with signed deals. You’ve got to start working now so, when and if the embargo is lifted, Texas gets its fair share of the pie.”

“I think it took quite a bit of courage for him to do it,” Piñon said. “Just the mere optics of the trip itself, certainly for those of us, whether we are from the Cuban American community or not, who believe that the embargo should be lifted, that was a very clear sign, and he didn’t have to do it. He didn’t have any political capital to gain by going to Cuba.”

Despite minimal national or international press coverage, Abbott’s visit resounded on Capitol Hill, according to James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a nonprofit advocacy group lobbying Congress to end travel and trade restrictions with Cuba.

“I think in many ways, the trip will have a bigger impact than people realize over the course of the next year,” Williams said. “There are a whole group of Republicans that are in Congress, other governors, other intellectually respected thought leaders, who are interested in going but who sort of needed the permission. I think that this does definitely blaze a trail. If Greg Abbott can go, basically anybody can go.”

And the Abbott who went to Cuba was not the “Jade Helm Abbott,” ready to appease every disgruntlement of the right, but the business-minded governor very much in evidence during his first legislative session, but here with a dash more daring, said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus.

“It may suggest that he is growing into a different kind of governor,” Rottinghaus said.

Abbott arrived in Cuba with an air of confidence and was accompanied by much of his inner circle, including his chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, policy director, senior advisor, economic development director and communications director.

Somewhere over the rainbow

As he got into his car at José Martí International Airport, an instrumental version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was on the radio.

“And I was, `I can’t believe I’m here in Havana and I’m hearing, `Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ We’re clearly not in Kansas any more, because, the first thing I’m reaching for is my cell phone and have no access, and it’s like a completely different universe.” Abbott said.

“The other component of the song — the promise of a brighter future — captures what the people of Cuba hunger for, but they’ve lost their ability grasp it,” Abbott said.

“The first thing you see are the decades-old cars, but more significantly you see both the impoverishment and the challenges here. I saw lot of dilapidated buildings, a lot of which are see-through buildings,” Abbott said. On his drive into the city, he passed a donkey cart, and a man plowing a field with a hoe.

“There is almost a time period disconnect between where we are now, where Cuba is now and where the rest of the world is,” Abbott said. As he exited the car at his hotel, the radio was playing an easy listening version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

The “time period disconnect” is perversely essential to Cuba’s tourist appeal as a place frozen in time, thanks to the Cold War, and yet, simmering with warm and welcoming people.

“They just seemed so open. The people here are just phenomenal,” said Cecilia Abbott, the first lady, a former principal, who made her own visits to the University of Havana and the Latin American Medical School.

“We’re just so used to disposing of things, right and left, and here they preserve because they have to,” she said. “It’s kind of the way I grew up in San Antonio in the 60s and 70s. It reminded me very much of Old San Antonio.”

It brought to mind her grandmother’s house, and the family car with the hole in the floor in the back seat.

Abbott’s idea

Going to Cuba was Abbott’s idea.

The week after he named Tracye McDaniel to head TexasOne – the public-private partnership charged with promoting Texas beyond its borders — last December, Obama announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba.

In one of her early conversations with Abbott, McDaniel said, Abbott told her, “I want to go to Cuba.”

Abbott’s first foreign trip, in September, was to Mexico, the state’s top trading partner, and, she said, other possibilities to come include established trading partners like Canada, England, Japan, India and Israel.

But Cuba was an “exploratory trip,” McDaniel said. “That’s a part of that Texas spirit, that pioneering, we are the state of prosperity, spirit.”

Aside from the cost of the governor’s state Department of Public Safety security detail, the trip was paid for by non-taxpayer money from TexasOne, and from the non-staff members in the delegation, including officials from the ports of Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi and the Houston Airport System.

Arkansas’ Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, led a business delegation to Havana in September, and before that was Cuomo.

“That trip was all about Gov. Cuomo. It was all about how many column inches he could get and not about what he could accomplish,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which, with the cooperation of the Cuban government, keeps U.S. businesses informed on relations between the two countries.

Kavulich praised the tone and the tenor of the Hutchinson and Abbott visits, though he said Abbott might have done better to bring more business people and fewer staff.

Behind the iron curtain

In her report on Abbott’s visit, Rosa Miriam Elizalde, a prominent Cuban journalist, wrote about waiting for Abbott’s arrival at a meeting the last day of his visit with the Cuban minister of foreign trade and investment.

“I ask one of the twenty companions, who entered the room in advance: What is the message of the governor in Havana?” she wrote. “`That we are here,’ he smiles and says something about the difficulty connecting to the Internet, which in Cuba is like `going to stick to rumba’” — rolling with the punches.

“The irony of the message is that Abbott, a Republican manual” – a textbook case – “bet on an initiative of Barack Obama – to re-establish economic ties with Cuba and lift the embargo — despite disagreeing with the president in almost everything else.”

So here Abbott is, Elizadle wrote, “venturing behind the iron curtain that Washington had lifted.”

“Texas Governor Greg Abbott Defects to Cuba,” read the headline on a Breitbart story faulting the governor for not meeting with dissidents in Cuba. “Once there, he happily obeyed the regime’s rules.”

Cruz’s silence

Two Cuban-Americans – U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida – are vying for the Republican nomination for president.

Cruz has called Obama’s reestablishing diplomatic relations, “a policy of unconditional surrender to Fidel and Raúl Castro by rewarding one of the most violently anti-American regimes on the planet with an embassy and an official representative of our government.”

Rubio has vowed to roll back Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba.

But, perhaps the most significant response to Abbott’s trip to Cuba was a rare silence from Cruz, who was Texas solicitor general under Attorney General Abbott.

The Cruz campaign declined comment on Abbott’s Cuba trip. Abbott has not endorsed a candidate for president.

“In today’s world,” Piñon said, “Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio’s position on Cuba is unrealistic.”

At La California, which only closes when there is no one to serve, Farigola, the irrepressibly entrepreneurial owner, said Abbott was right to come to Havana because Americans who hesitate will lose. We are at a “moment” in history, Farigola said, and Americans “must seize the moment.”