Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Without democracy, no reform

    Posted on Friday, 08.13.10

    Without democracy, no reform

    In maintaining Cuba on the official list of State Sponsors of Terrorism for another year, the Obama administration last week said provides safe haven to terrorists belonging to three outlaw organizations. Additionally, Cuba, according to the , “permit[s] U.S. fugitives to live legally in Cuba. These U.S. fugitives include convicted murderers as well as numerous hijackers.”

    The statements could not come at a worse time for those who want to lift Washington’s ban on American to the island, apparently including Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Ortega traveled to Washington recently to speak with Gen. Jim Jones, Obama’s national security adviser. The National Security Council released a statement from General Jones, but kept mum about what the cardinal requested.

    The Washington Post, however, reported that Cardinal Ortega “subscribe[s] to the rosier view” of those who believe that despite Fidel ’s opposition, “Raúl [] is determined to press forward with a program of change that will extend for years, rather than months.” Ortega said it is “not realistic to begin” with the “democratic reforms” that Obama has demanded as a condition for improved relations. Yet, without democracy and the civil and economic rights that accompany it, all other reforms will fail and can only serve to extend the hold of the dictatorship.

    Ortega’s visit undergirds efforts by some in Congress to allow tourism and extend bank credits rather than insist on cash payments to U.S. exporters. The administration’s newest terrorism report spoils those plans: “Cuba continued to provide physical safe haven and ideological support to members of three groups designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the United States” — FARC, ELN and ETA. The first two groups operate in Colombia. ETA is responsible for many murders in .

    The latest assessment comes despite Cuba’s protests and efforts by sympathizers to have its name removed from the terrorist list. Cuba has been on the list under five presidents, Republican and Democrat, since 1982. The closest Havana got to being removed was in the 1990s, when Ana Belen Montes, then the highest Defense Intelligence Agency official responsible for assessing Cuba’s threat, almost convinced some well-meaning colleagues of Cuba’s innocence. She was arrested in 2001 and a year later was sentenced to 25 years after pleading guilty to spying for Havana.

    About the cardinal’s visit, the NSC quotes General Jones saying: “The United States government desires to see all political prisoners unconditionally released from jail in Cuba with the right to remain in Cuba upon release.” Jones also called “for the immediate release of [USAID contractor] Alan , who has been held without charge since early December 2009” in Havana, for allegedly giving laptops and cell phones to Cuban dissidents.

    But if the NSC was reticent about quoting the cardinal, The Washington Post was not, concluding that Ortega has a benign view. The Cuban prelate brought the message that Raúl Castro “is ready to talk with the United States” because Castro wants “U.S. trade and ” in order to “revive” Cuba’s .

    Yet many Cubans believe that a dialogue between Raúl Castro and the cardinal, or even with Washington, is not enough. The road to Cuba’s “revival” should start with the release of all political prisoners, as Obama has asked. The cardinal should take a message back: Forget about U.S. foreign investment and tourism saving the Castro regime; free the Cubans’ economic capacity, which is much more than allowing them to own single-chair barbershops or to manufacture paper flowers at home. Cubans, not foreigners, can jump-start the island’s manufacturing, trade and agricultural production, but only under the sole proven economic system: free enterprise.

    As a first step, Raúl could reduce the taxes on remittances, as President Obama has asked, and permit those funds sent by exiles to finance significant economic activity. That would be real change, ameliorating the current economic crisis and providing employment for many un- and underemployed Cubans while liberating them from their dependence on the state.

    That might not be what Raúl Castro wants, but most Cubans, Catholics and non-Catholics would welcome it.

    Otto Reich is a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to . Frank Calzón is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Arlington, Va.