Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Jail Term Stands to Roil U.S.-Cuba Relations

    MARCH 13, 2011, 4:52 P.M. ET

    Jail Term Stands to Roil U.S.-Cuba Relations

    The 15-year sentence given to an American in Cuba this weekend
    threatens to end a recent thaw of relations between the two countries
    while putting a harsh spotlight on a contentious covert operations
    program the U.S. has run on the island for years.

    In recent years the Obama administration has offered a kind of
    rapprochement with Cuba, reversing tightened travel restrictions
    instituted by his predecessor George W. Bush and allowing Cubans to send
    more money to the island.

    But Saturday's sentencing of , a contractor from U.S. Agency
    for International Development, throws recent progress into question,
    some experts said. Mr. had been distributing
    communications equipment on the island under a democracy-promotion
    program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development. That was
    , according to a Cuban court, which handed down a harsh 15-year
    sentence for aiming "to destroy the Revolution."

    The ruling—made over a demand by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham
    Clinton to immediately release Mr. Gross—will decrease chances the U.S.
    will push more conciliatory measures with Cuba in the near future,
    experts said.

    "Do we give them all these concessions in the hope that they will do
    something, or do we think in terms of real politics and try to tighten
    the screws?" asked Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba analyst at the of

    For decades, the U.S. has tried to pry Cuba open to democracy through
    its economic embargo, aid to Cuban dissidents and even a 1961 invasion
    attempt at the Bay of Pigs. But the government has countered the
    measures with heightened security and anti-American rhetoric.
    Recognizing the failures of past presidents to change Cuba, President
    Barack Obama even suggested during his campaign that he was open to an
    unprecedented meeting Cuban President Raul Castro.

    The meeting never happened. But last year Mr. Obama began reversing
    years of increasing tightening restrictions on Cuba, allowing more
    airports to fly charter flights to , raising the number of visits
    those with Cuban families could make to the island and boosting limits
    on remittances sent there by relatives. Cuba seemed to respond in kind:
    it began releasing dozens of political prisoners, long a demand of the
    U.S. as it pushes for democratic reforms there.

    Cuba, in a deep economic crisis, is in the process of laying off as many
    as two million state workers, and reviving and expanding a small and
    moribund private sector. Revived trade, and from the
    U.S. would go a long way to help Havana cope with its .

    Despite signs of rapprochement, however, Mr. Gross's case lay waiting in
    the wings. He had been arrested in 2009 by the government for
    distributing devices that allowed remote Internet accesses, something
    that's highly-controlled in Cuba. Mr. Gross's family said he had done
    nothing wrong and was only working to improve Internet access to the
    island's Jewish community.

    It also turned out Mr. Gross had been traveling to the island on a
    visa and was distributing the devices as part of a covert
    program run by USAID to promote democracy supporters in Cuba. The year
    before, USAID had warned participants, including NGOs and outside
    contractors, that their work could get them in trouble in Cuba, and that
    they could even face jail time.

    Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington
    Institute who has followed the case closely, said Mr. Gross's situation
    makes things more difficult between the two countries by highlighting
    the existence of ongoing covert U.S. operations on the island. But he
    said Mr. Obama may choose to continue ahead with changes in policy that
    he sees "in the national interest."

    Mr. Peters said despite the fact that Mr. Gross was apprehended in 2009,
    the Obama administration hadn't taken control of the USAID program,
    which under George W. Bush had expanded from a small program that
    distributed pro-democracy aid in Cuba to a $45 million giant seeking
    high-tech proposals to aid activists.

    Since Mr. Gross's arrest the program has come under attack in Congress
    as being wasteful and poorly-planned. Mr. Peters agrees: "It's a fools
    errand to send development contractors and match them against Cuban
    intelligence on Cuban territory," he said.

    It's unclear yet what either country's next steps will be in Mr. Gross's
    case or between the two nations. On Saturday, the State Department
    issued a statement saying he was "unjustly jailed" and repeating demands
    for his immediate release. His attorney said that Mr. Gross was looking
    into options for an appeal.

    Mr. Peters also said it was possible that Cuba will avoid further
    conflict and release Mr. Gross on humanitarian grounds having made an
    example of him in court. "I don't see it serves Cuba's interests to hold
    him a long period of time," he said.