Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    U.S. and Cuba say they’d like to see a changed relationship

    Posted on Friday, 05.11.12

    Latin America

    U.S. and Cuba say they'd like to see a changed relationship

    But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson says during a
    Miami trip that the jailing of Alan Gross and Cuba's lack of political
    progress are stumbling blocks

    Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta
    Jacobson said Friday that she hoped Cuba was sincere about wanting to
    improve relations with the United States.

    "I start from the position of an optimist in government in that I hope
    they want to improve relations; I do hope so,'' said Jacobson, who was
    in Miami to attend the University of Miami Center for Hemispheric
    Policy's 7th Annual Latin America Conference.

    A day earlier in an interview with CNN, Josefina Vidal, director of the
    North American Division in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said that for
    many years Cuba has been "conveying to the U.S. side our willingness to
    have a comprehensive political dialogue… to solve all our historical
    problems'' and to have a mutually beneficial relationship.

    But at this point, neither side appears to be actively engaged in
    improving the contentious relationship.

    During a speech at the conference, Jacobson said the United States had a
    "positive policy'' toward Cuba — "one that seeks to support Cubans'
    right to freely determine their future."

    She cited Obama administration steps to ease travel restrictions for
    Cuban-Americans as well as allowing higher levels of remittances and
    more travel for religious, academic and cultural purposes by other

    "We believe that these policies are enhancing the independence of the
    Cuban people from the state, and we will be the first to cheer when a
    democratically chosen government in Cuba resumes its full participation
    in the inter-American system,'' said Jacobson, who was confirmed six
    weeks ago after serving as acting assistant secretary since July 2011.

    She acknowledged that the situation of Alan Gross, a subcontractor for a
    U.S. Agency for International Development program, is a stumbling block
    in improving the relationship. Gross is jailed in Cuba for "actions
    against the integrity of the state.''

    But there are other factors, too, she said, particularly the need for
    progress on the political side to allow Cubans to exercise their civil
    and political rights.

    When it comes to Gross, Jacobson said, the Cuban government "must free
    him immediately without conditions.''

    As a humanitarian gesture, Gross' U.S. lawyer has asked that he be
    allowed to travel to the United States for two weeks to visit his
    90-year-old mother Evelyn, who is battling inoperable lung cancer.

    The United States recently allowed René González, one of five Cuban
    agents convicted of spying on the United States, to return to Cuba for
    two weeks to see his brother Roberto, who also is suffering from cancer.

    González, who had served a 13-year term in the United States but is
    still on probation, returned to the United States after his visit as agreed.

    In the CNN interview, Vidal said Cuba is ready "to find a solution, a
    humanitarian solution to Mr. Gross' case on a reciprocal basis.''

    In the past, the Cubans have indicated they might be interested in
    swapping the so-called "Cuba Five'' for Gross, an option that doesn't
    interest the United States.

    Jacobson said there aren't currently any negotiations underway with Cuba
    regarding Gross' release.

    Pressed by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer on why Cuba wouldn't temporarily
    release Gross to see his dying mother in Texas, Vidal responded, "In the
    case of Mr. Alan Gross, he started to serve his prison term three years
    ago'' and the "conditions under which he is now do not allow him to go
    outside Cuba.''

    A U.S. official who asked for anonymity said Cuba had approached the
    United States about having Evelyn Gross go to Cuba to visit her son.
    However, the official said she is too ill to travel and "that's not an

    Gross' family has even presented medical documents from her doctors
    stating she is too ill to travel, the official said.

    But Cuba was far from the only topic of discussion at the UM Latin
    America Conference.

    During her speech, Jacobson said that despite the United States' growing
    interest in the Pacific Rim, Latin America is still a top priority.

    "Our partnership with the Americas matters a great deal for the United
    States,'' said Jacobson. "Secretary Clinton has described how harnessing
    the 'power of proximity' between the Untied States and Latin America,
    the Caribbean and Canada is among the most strategically significant
    tasks facing our foreign policy in the years ahead.''

    While Jacobson applauded "remarkable'' changes that have been happening
    in the Americas in terms of a growing middleclass and "pragmatic leaders
    who are building deeper democracies,'' she said challenges remain.

    Economic growth, she said, needs to be sustainable and include
    opportunities for broader sectors of society

    Among areas of concern, Jacobson said, are:

    • Security. "While much of the region is enjoying greater peace and
    prosperity, violent crime remains a serious problem throughout Mexico,
    Central America, and parts of the Caribbean.''

    • An erosion of freedom of expression in some countries. "We've seen
    massive lawsuits against newspapers, judicial harassment of media
    owners, and continuing violence against journalists by non-state
    actors,'' she said.

    • An effort to undermine or weaken the Inter-American Human Rights
    System. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said recently that his
    government should pull out of the Inter-American Commission on Human
    Rights, the Organization of American States' human rights body. The
    Washington-based commission has been critical of Venezuela's human
    rights record.

    "Dissent is not criminal behavior. Opposition to the government is not
    criminal behavior. And free speech is not criminal behavior,'' said

    In the past year, Cuba has arrested a record number of dissidents for
    protest activities and held them for relatively short periods of time
    before releasing them.

    After her remarks, Jacobson said she was not speaking specifically about
    Cuban dissidents: "Unfortunately we've seen a situation in which free
    speech in particular but also other forms of opposition… haven't been
    fully respected in a number of countries in the hemisphere but it
    certainly includes Cuba.

    "The United States has a long track record of supporting peaceful
    dissident opposition activity in Cuba and trying to insure overall that
    all Cubans have the opportunity to exercise full and universal political
    and civil rights, to exercise freedom of expression, freedom of
    assembly, which they are unable to do right now."