As commerce secretary, Cuban-born Carlos Gutierrez would be expected to support President Bush's policies of blocking most trade with Fidel Castro's communist government.
Yet while Gutierrez was chief executive officer of Kellogg Co., the nation's largest cereal maker explored the possibility of doing business with Cuba, participating in a trade show in Havana in 2002.
The Treasury Department permitted U.S. companies to attend the event, but the Bush administration made its disapproval clear.
It is not known whether Kellogg pursued trade with Cuba beyond attending the 2002 fair or whether Gutierrez was involved in the company's decision to go the event. Kellogg officials did not respond to requests this week for details.
The company's participation could lead to awkward questions at Gutierrez's Senate confirmation hearing as he defends the administration's position that trade with Cuba only aids Castro's authoritarian government.
Anti-Castro activists strongly support the nomination of Gutierrez, whose family fled Cuba in 1960 when he was 6. They say Gutierrez backs the embargo. In June, he donated $4,000 to the anti-Castro U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, according to a report the group filed with the Federal Election Commission.
"I separate Carlos Gutierrez, the man and his principles and what he stands (for), and what he had to do as a CEO of a major corporation," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who supports the embargo.
She said Gutierrez, while at Kellogg, had to respond to the interests and wishes of the company's board and shareholders.
An embargo opponent, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., praised Gutierrez for Kellogg's participation in the trade show. But Dorgan said he did not expect Gutierrez to oppose Bush's policies of tightening the embargo.
"When he signed on to be commerce secretary, he signed on to the administration's policies with Cuba — lock, stock and barrel," said Dorgan, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which will consider the nomination.
The United States has maintained embargoes of various forms against Cuba for more than 40 years to pressure Cuba to make democratic and economic changes. Opponents say the penalties are ineffective, hurt poor Cubans and reduce export opportunities for American businesses.
The 2002 U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition was made possible by a law signed by President Clinton two years earlier allowing direct commercial sales of American food and agricultural products to Cuba.
With 291 exhibitors including many major U.S. corporations, the exhibition was the first major fair of its kind in Cuba. The Cuban government signed contracts to buy about $92 million in American farm products during the exhibition.
John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said he does not believe Kellogg followed up the fair by exporting products from the United States to Cuba.
"They haven't been aggressive in pursuing opportunities," said Kavulich, whose group tracks business between the two countries and assisted the exhibition's organizer.
Kavulich said Gutierrez has appeared to distance himself from the company's decisions about Cuba.
"He hasn't been a vocal advocate, but he hasn't prohibited the company from evaluating the marketplace," Kavulich said.
In a 2002 interview with Hispanic Magazine, Gutierrez said he would be interested in someday bringing Kellogg to Cuba.
Kellogg products produced in Mexico are well-stocked in Cuba's consumer goods stores. Mexico is a major trading partner of Cuba.
It is not unusual for corporate leaders to shift their views on assuming public office. When Vice President Dick Cheney headed Halliburton, the oil services company, he denounced trade embargoes. Under Cheney, Halliburton expanded trade with Iran through an offshore subsidiary. Bush has included Iran as part of his "axis of evil."
As commerce secretary, Gutierrez would oversee the Bureau of Industry and Security, which approves licenses for approved exports, such as food and health care products, to Cuba. He would also be the leading champion for boosting U.S. trade around the world.
Kavulich cautioned against reading too much into Kellogg's participation in the fair as a sign of what he might do if in the Cabinet.
"The positions he held as an executive with Kellogg Co., if they were in opposition to Bush administration policy, you can reasonably expect that any differences will be in hibernation for the next four years," Kavulich said.