Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Alan Gross vs. the Cuban Five?

    Alan Gross vs. the Cuban Five?
    May 23, 2012 - Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

    Advocates for Alan Gross, who is serving prison time in Cuba, say that
    talk of a trade for five Cuban spies is a non-starter. But they
    acknowledge hopes that the Obama administration will consider
    lower-level concessions in exchange for Cuban considerations for the
    jailed American.
    Gross with his wife, Judy, at the Western Wall in the spring of 2005
    Photo courtesy of the Gross family

    Insiders say that Gross' advocates want the U.S. government to consider,
    among other things, more family visits for the "Cuban Five," agents who
    were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 on espionage-related
    charges, and the permanent return home for the one among them who is now
    out of jail and serving probation.

    The Cuban government recently came closer than ever to making explicit
    that the fate of the Cuban Five factors into its considerations of
    whether to release Gross, the State Department contractor who was
    convicted on charges stemming from his efforts to connect Cuba's small
    Jewish community to the Internet.

    Gross, who is Jewish and from Potomoc, Md., was arrested in 2009 and
    sentenced last year to 15 years.

    "We have made clear to the U.S. government that we are ready to have a
    negotiation in order to try and find a solution, a humanitarian solution
    to Mr. Gross' case on a reciprocal basis," Josefina Vidal, the top
    official in the Cuban Foreign Ministry handling North America, said in a
    May 10 interview on CNN.

    Vidal would not offer specifics, but prompted by interviewer Wolf
    Blitzer, she said the Cuban Five were a concern. "Cuba has legitimate
    concerns, humanitarian concerns related to the situation of the Cuban
    Five," she said.

    The State Department immediately rejected such reciprocity. "There is no
    equivalence between these situations," Victoria Nuland, the State
    Department spokeswoman, said in remarks to the media the day after the
    interview. "On the one hand, you have convicted spies in the United
    States, and on the other hand, you have an assistance worker who should
    never have been locked up in the first place. So we are not
    contemplating any release of the Cuban Five, and we are not
    contemplating any trade.

    "The continuing imprisonment of Alan Gross is deplorable, it is wrong,
    and it's an affront to human decency. And the Cuban government needs to
    do the right thing," she said.

    On background, a source apprised of the dealings among Gross' advocates,
    the U.S. government and the Cubans says that Gross' advocates are
    willing to press for visits by the wives of two of the Cuban Five, Rene
    Gonzalez and Gerardo Hernandez. The United States has refused visas
    multiple times for the women, and Amnesty International has taken up
    their cause.

    Another possible "give," according to the source: a permanent return to
    Cuba for Gonzalez, who is out of jail and serving probation in the Miami
    area. It's not clear what the Cubans would offer in return for such
    concessions, but it is likely they would draw protests from the
    Cuban-American community, including among stalwart pro-Israel lawmakers,
    such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the powerful chairwoman of
    the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, who has
    rejected any leniency for the Cuban Five.

    Ronald Halber, who heads the Jewish Community Relations Council of
    Greater Washington and has directed much of the national activism on
    Gross' behalf, said he understands the "intensity" of the Cuban-American
    community's response, but said that Obama also should take into account
    the national interest.

    "I do not believe that U.S. policy to Cuba can be held hostage by the
    Cuban community in Miami," he said. "It's American national interests
    that are at stake. They should be part of the conversation, I understand
    the intensity, although this intensity is more among the older
    generation, not the younger generation. Our government has to do what is
    in our interests."

    Gross' family and his advocates in the organized Jewish community
    emphasize their agreement with Nuland's premise: There is no equivalency
    between a contractor installing and training others in the use of
    communications equipment and five spies believed to be instrumental in
    the 1996 shooting of two small aircraft leafleting Cuba with
    pro-democracy messages, resulting in the deaths of four Cuban-American

    Three of the five were sentenced to life and one to 19 years. Gonzalez,
    sentenced to 15 years, was released last year on a three-year probation.

    "We're not in a position to negotiate that and I don't think the U.S.
    government is inclined to do so," said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive
    vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
    Organizations, the community's foreign policy umbrella.

    Instead, he said, "we are continuing to press the case in various fora
    directly and indirectly."

    That included the Presidents Conference's recent requests that Pope
    Benedict XVI raise Gross' plight during his March trip to Cuba.

    Gross, who is held in a medical facility, has been visited by family,
    friends and Jewish leaders. He is allowed weekly calls to the United States.

    Most recently he spoke with leaders of the JCRC of Greater Washington to
    thank them for leading U.S. advocacy on his behalf.

    Gross, his family and his advocates want him to make a two-week visit to
    his 90-year-old mother, who is dying of cancer in Texas, after which he
    has pledged he will return to Cuba.

    His family had voiced support for allowing Gonzalez to return home for
    two weeks to visit his brother. Gonzalez made the visit in March and has
    since returned.

    Vidal said the two concessions were not equivalent.

    "The cases of Mr. Gross and Mr. Rene Gonzalez, I have to tell you, are
    different," she told CNN. "First, Mr. Rene Gonzalez, who is one of the
    Cuban Five, he served completely his term until the last day. Rene
    Gonzalez was not detained and was not imprisoned for attempting against
    U.S. national security."

    Those are the charges against Gross; Cuba says the Cuban Five were
    guilty only of spying on groups it considers as extremist and not on the
    U.S. government.

    Cuba maintains that Gross' activity on behalf of the Jewish community
    was a cover for installing sophisticated communications equipment. Gross
    has said the equipment is freely available in U.S. electronic goods
    outlets and online.

    Halber of the Washington JCRC noted a new openness to Cuba under the
    Obama administration, which has facilitated travel between the two
    countries. President Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela, is attending a
    conference this week in San Francisco.

    Halber said the primary fault lies with the Cuban government for
    attempting to leverage Gross' freedom to secure concessions for the
    Cuban Five.

    "He is a man who is being used as a hostage, who is being used as a
    pawn," Halber said. "The Cubans are using a man as a bargaining chip to
    get back five correctly convicted folks who committed crimes on U.S. soil."