As U.S.-Cuba relations thaw, 2 Charlotte leaders share perspectives


For the first time in 54 years, the Cuban flag flew last week above the country’s embassy in Washington, D.C. The move signaled the latest, and most visible, step toward normal ties between the United States and Cuba.

“A year ago, it might have seemed impossible that the United States would once again be raising our flag, the stars and stripes, over an embassy in Havana,” Obama said earlier this month. “This is what change looks like.”

Americans – and some Charlotte residents – are divided about the decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. A recent CBS News poll found 58 percent of Americans favor the move, while 24 percent oppose it.

Cuban-born Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates, who shared a bunk with one of Fidel Castro’s sons at Havana Military School, is among the critics.

His view: The Obama administration didn’t do enough in the negotiations to improve conditions for the Cuban people. Sabates points to the recent defections of Cuban athletes in North Carolina as among the evidence of continued problems.

Obama, Sabates argues, should have said: “Let’s get something in return. Let’s free these people.”

Mark Erwin, a former U.S. ambassador to Mauritius, said Cuba has changed significantly in the past three years. He visited Cuba twice with the Council of American Ambassadors and expects that this is a period of transition for Cuba, no matter how slowly it occurs.

“Like a large cruise ship, it takes a while to turn these things,” he said.

More from Felix Sabates and Mark Erwin, in their own words:

Felix Sabates

I think it’s probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. The reason for that is, you know they have 3,000 political prisoners in Cuba who didn’t do anything but disagree with Castro on Cuba. Some people have been in jail from anywhere between five to 30 years. Obama should have come to them and said, “OK, we’re going to establish a relationship. Let’s get something in return. Let’s free these people.” But he didn’t do that. He didn’t do anything. He just opened up the relationship with Cuba and promised that we’re going to release Guantanamo Bay, and Castro didn’t promise to do anything for us. Nothing.

I promised my mother that I would never go to Cuba as long as Fidel Castro is alive.

Felix Sabates

Personally, I don’t think you’re going to see many changes. You’ll see tourism, and now Americans will be able to go to Cuba. But they’re going to force Americans to exchange money with the Cuban currency, so the government is going to get U.S. dollars and the citizens are going to get nothing. And nothing is going to change, besides the government getting more money.

I don’t think any president we’ve had since Eisenhower has dealt with Cuba very well. We had our chances, two or three times, and I think Reagan probably came closer, by not handling Castro but by giving them an ultimatum. At least Reagan tried to do something, but nobody else has.

The people in Cuba aren’t going to have more freedom just because Americans can come to Cuba. The fact that people can come and visit doesn’t really mean anything. They have no obligation to America besides to charge the tourists a lot of money.

(The recent defections) should show people in this country how unhappy those people are. Athletes in Cuba are the heroes. Those guys that are allowed to play, in either baseball or soccer, those are the heroes, and when the heroes leave the country, that should tell you something. They don’t want to live in Cuba. I thought it was great. I wish the whole team would have defected.

I promised my mother that I would never go to Cuba as long as Fidel Castro is alive. I would love to go to Cuba, but I made a promise to my mother and I can’t break it.

Mark Erwin

The people of Cuba have been underprivileged for 50 years. It’s an interesting society. They have excellent health care and school systems. Health care and education are both free. But on the other hand, they don’t have very much food, and they have no money to speak of. Typically Cubans make about $25 per month. A great bulk of them work for the government, and the government essentially gives them coupon books for food.

There’s an overall shortage of food. The Communist system didn’t work very well in terms of promoting agricultural production. Right now they are importing around $3 billion in food stuffs from the world, in a country that has plenty of good, arable land. But if the farmers planted extra crops, they wouldn’t benefit from it. And the government controlled the seeds, so a lot of the land is fallow.

By 2015, when we returned, we saw lots of changes … all positive.

Mark Erwin, a former U.S. ambassador

The people are wonderful people. I was down there in 2012 and 2015 with the Council of American Ambassadors. We were an unofficial delegation trying to promote opening Cuba up to America. President Obama actually started having secret negotiations with the Cuban government in 2013.

Even in 2012, the Cuban leadership that we met with, people from the Politburo and the different governmental departments, were saying, “We’re going to change, we’re going to have to change. The system doesn’t work when we don’t have state sponsors, like when we had the USSR or Venezuela. But the change has to come from on high.”

By 2015, when we returned, we saw lots of changes … all positive. We saw 500,000 jobs in the private sector, whereas just three years earlier there were probably 50,000 jobs in the private sector. We saw housing move into the private sector. Not the real estate underneath the housing, but the structures themselves were sold very cheaply to the residents. The changes have been taking place just over the interceding three years. Like a large cruise ship, it takes a while to turn these things.

When we were down there in 2012, their internal security went through our luggage, hacked our computers, had handlers with us all of the time and reported back on everything that we said. When we went back in 2015, none of that happened, at least to our knowledge. It was like a whole different place. Viva la Cuba.

Mark Erwin

Age: 71

Hometown: Coral Gables, Fla.

Career: United States ambassador 1999-2001 to a regional U.S. Embassy serving three African nations, president of Erwin Capital Inc.

Family: Wife, Joan, and two children

Felix Sabates

Age: 69

Hometown: Camaguey, Cuba

Career: Co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, owner of Mercedes-Benz of South Charlotte, part owner of Charlotte Hornets

Family: Divorced, three children


Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were cut in 1961. Relations were partially restored in 1977 with the creation of U.S. and Cuban diplomatic interests sections in the countries’ respective capitals.