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
By NICHOLAS CASEY
The 15-year prison 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 Alan Gross, a contractor from U.S. Agency
for International Development, throws recent progress into question,
some experts said. Mr. Gross had been distributing Internet
communications equipment on the island under a democracy-promotion
program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development. That was
illegal, 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,
"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 University 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 Havana, 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, investment and tourism from the
U.S. would go a long way to help Havana cope with its economy.
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
tourist 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.