A Cuban conundrum
A Cuban conundrum
If Alan P. Gross were an American spy instead of a subcontractor, the
U.S. would have secured his freedom from Cuban prison by now. Here's how
it still could — and why it should.
By William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh
December 6, 2011
Two years ago, Cuban counterintelligence officers arrested Alan P.
Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor, as he
boarded a plane in Havana for the United States. Later convicted in a
closed trial of crimes against the state for smuggling sophisticated
telecommunications equipment into Cuba, Gross is serving a 15-year
prison sentence. Obama administration officials have declared that
relations with Cuba will remain frozen until Gross is released, but the
administration has not been willing to take the aggressive steps
necessary to win his freedom. Gross' fate, like Cuba policy generally,
is now being sacrificed to electoral politics in Florida.
Ironically, if Gross were a CIA officer, he would probably be free by
now. In 2010, Washington traded 10 Russian "sleeper" agents for four
Russians jailed in Moscow for spying for the West. In 1979, President
Carter crafted an informal bargain in which Cuba released four CIA
agents imprisoned since the 1960s, in exchange for clemency for four
Puerto Rican nationalists convicted of attempting to assassinate U.S.
government officials in the 1950s. The history of the Cold War is
replete with such trades. The CIA takes care of its own.
But Gross did not work for the CIA. He worked — in his words, as a
"trusting fool" — for a USAID contractor participating in a U.S.
government-funded democracy-building program. He traveled several times
to Cuba on a tourist visa carrying computers, cellphones and satellite
communications technology for independent nongovernmental organizations
and individuals in Cuba's Jewish community.
The Cuban government regards USAID's democracy-promotion program as
subversive, geared to foment regime change. It arrested Gross, a bit
player in this larger diplomatic drama, to send Washington the message
that Cuba will not tolerate such actions. U.S. officials expected that
once the Cubans had made their point, they would free Gross on
humanitarian grounds. But that hasn't happened. As Foreign Minister
Bruno Rodriguez told the New York Times in September, any humanitarian
release would have to be based on "reciprocity."
By that, Havana means the release of the so-called Cuban Five — five
intelligence officers dispatched to the United States in the 1990s to
spy on militant anti-Castro groups in the Cuban American community and
imprisoned here since 1998. Their prolonged incarceration is a cause
celebre in Cuba, and one can only assume that Cuban security officials
are just as intent on looking after their own as are intelligence
When Jimmy Carter traveled to Cuba in March, his hosts floated the idea
of an informal swap modeled on the release of the CIA agents and Puerto
Rican nationalists in 1979. Carter has publicly called for the release
of both Gross and the Cuban Five, albeit without linking the cases.
Thus far, however, the Obama administration has been unwilling to even
consider such an exchange because of the inflammatory politics of the
Cuban Five case in Miami's Cuban American community. When former New
Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson went to Havana in September hoping to
negotiate Gross' release, the State Department gave him only a meager
list of reciprocal U.S. actions to offer. The Cubans indignantly refused
to let Richardson even meet with Gross.
If Obama's political advisors think that refusing to trade the Cuban
Five for Gross will insulate the president from political heat on the
issue, they don't know south Florida. Republicans are already referring
to Gross as a "hostage" and excoriating Obama for not forcing Cuba
(somehow) to release him. From a strictly political calculus, Obama
would be better off securing Gross' release and getting the issue off
the electoral agenda.
But the real concern ought to be safeguarding Gross' well-being by
finding an expeditious path to win his freedom. At present, the
administration has put itself in a Catch-22: It won't take any further
initiatives to improve relations while Gross remains in jail, but the
poor state of relations with Cuba is the main obstacle to his release.
Based on the lessons of previous prisoner releases and successful
negotiations with Cuba, the administration needs to take a more
The first steps should be aimed at improving the poisonous bilateral
atmosphere between the two countries. The administration should allow
Rene Gonzalez, the one member of the Cuban Five who has completed his
prison sentence, to return home rather than forcing him to stay in
Florida on parole for three more years. Obama should also remove Cuba
from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, where
it has remained since 1982 only as a vestige of Havana's support for
Latin American revolutionaries during the Cold War.
Then the diplomatic stage will be set for a serious dialogue with the
Cubans about what steps each side can take toward the release of both
Gross and the Cuban Five. As the main bargaining chip, the
administration should be ready to revamp the program that landed Gross
in prison in the first place, redefining it to foster genuine
people-to-people linkages, not creation of potential internal
opposition. Successfully negotiating Gross' release would serve not only
a laudable humanitarian purpose but a wider diplomatic one as well.
Henry Kissinger, ever the realist, understood that dealing effectively
with Cuba would sometimes require Washington to take the lead. "It is
better to deal straight with Castro," he advised his aides before
sending them to begin negotiations. "Behave chivalrously; do it like a
big guy, not like a shyster." If Obama wants to welcome Gross home
before another anniversary of his arrest rolls around, he should follow
William M. LeoGrande is dean of the School of Public Affairs at American
University in Washington. Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the
National Security Archive at George Washington University. They are the
coauthors of the forthcoming book, "Talking with Castro: The Untold
History of Dialogue between the United States and Cuba."