On April 15, 1961, I awoke to the sound of gunfire. My mother immediately came into my room and told me to get under the bed. It was the beginning of the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, when planes piloted by Cuban exiles bombed the Castro government’s air force base near Havana. A few days later my parents informed we would soon leave the country of my birth.
My parents did not want their only child to grow up in a totalitarian Marxist regime. They instilled in me a love of my native country, and especially an appreciation for Cuba’s patriots José Martí and Antonio Maceo. After a year in Cali, Colombia staying with relatives, we arrived in the U.S. We were grateful to the United States for providing refuge to Cubans fleeing the Castro regime. I was 11 years old.
When I turned 21, I became an American citizen. Four years later, in 1977, I became an American diplomat. I served for 29 years, under six U.S. presidents and 13 secretaries of state. During my career I served in the Dominican Republic, Portugal, Haiti, France, the Bahamas, Nicaragua and Argentina, in addition to several Washington tours.
It was an honor to represent the United States in seven different countries. I worked for Republican and Democratic presidents. I didn’t always agree with every decision that my government made, but I believed in American values: support for democracy and human rights, and advancing the interests of what I consider to be the greatest country in the world.
In 1996, I was nominated by President Clinton, and confirmed by the Senate, to be the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua. I was proud of the work we did in supporting Nicaraguans who were working to establish a democracy after 11 years of the Sandinista dictatorship. We also aided the Nicaraguan people after Hurricane Mitch, the worst disaster ever in Central America, ravaged the region.
On September 11, 2001, when I was the Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, I happened to be in Lima, Peru, accompanying Secretary of State Colin Powell to a meeting of the Organization of American States, where the nations of the Hemisphere signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter. While having breakfast with the President of Peru, we were informed that commercial airplanes had hit the World Trade Center. Secretary Powell cut his trip short and when we returned to Washington that night, we were the only plane flying except for F-16s on patrol. Coordinating joint action by our friends in the Hemisphere against terrorism after 9-11 was one of my proudest moments. It was a special occasion when our allies rallied around the U.S. in a time of need.
In 2003, I was nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate to be U.S. Ambassador to Argentina. It was a difficult time when the “Pink Tide” of populism had come to the region, but we managed to sign agreements with Argentina on counter-terrorism, security and narcotics cooperation. President Bush visited Argentina during my tenure.
I have always registered as an independent. I have been closer to Republicans on international affairs, including Cuba policy, but agree more with Democrats on immigration and social policies. I have almost always voted for Republican candidates for president.
But this year I am voting for Joe Biden. The former vice president is a decent man with a long and distinguished record as a senator and vice president. He has pledged to work with our allies, understands the value of diplomacy, defends democratic values, supports human rights, believes in the rule of law, and will make America proud again.
Do I agree with Joe Biden on every issue? I do not. I did not agree with many aspects of President Obama’s “opening” to Castro’s Cuba in 2014, particularly the way the secret negotiations were conducted, and the fact that little if anything was asked of the Cuban regime while much was given by the U.S. government. But I know that Joe Biden would like to see a free Cuba.
Sometimes we have to focus on the whole forest and not individual trees. We need to return to being the “shining city on a hill” that the United States has been since World War II, a beacon of liberty and an example to the rest of the world. Currently we are not that.
Many of my fellow Cuban-Americans, including members of my family that I love, support the current administration, which they view as more to their liking on Cuba policy. I understand their choice. But I cannot accompany them this year.
Would our Cuban ancestors like José Martí, who preached that governments should be “with all and for all” of their citizens support the current division? Would the Afro-Cuban leader Antonio Maceo accept a government that considers white supremacists good people? I think not. They might be described as “losers” by the current administration, but they were anything but that.
Words and actions have consequences. These are times that try men’s souls, as Thomas Paine would have put it. In these times I am reminded of the poem by Martin Niemoller about personal responsibility, which could be adapted to the current situation:
First they attacked the Mexicans, and I did not speak out, for I wasn’t a Mexican.
Then they attacked the immigrants, and I did not speak out, for I wasn’t an immigrant.
Then they attacked the Blacks, and I did not speak out, for I wasn’t Black.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
So for my family, especially my daughters and grandchildren, so they can live in the America I have always been proud to represent, where the rule of law is respected, I support Joe Biden for President.
Lino Gutierrez is a retired Foreign Service Officer, former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and Argentina, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the Department of State.