Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    The Cuba Fallacy

    The Cuba Fallacy

    Lifting the U.S. embargo would not bring democracy to Havana.
    by Jaime Daremblum
    June 21, 2012 - 12:00 am

    Stop me if you've heard this before: "The U.S. embargo against Cuba is
    the single biggest reason that Washington and Havana do not enjoy better
    relations. If we want the island nation to become a democracy, we should
    drop sanctions and pursue a policy of aggressive engagement."

    It is a simple and seductive argument, which explains why so many people
    have embraced it. Unfortunately, it is based on a fallacious reading of
    history and a naïve understanding of the Cuban dictatorship.

    Over the past four decades, every American president who has pursued a
    serious rapprochement with Havana — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill
    Clinton, and Barack Obama — has been left shaking his head in
    frustration. Whenever the United States has extended an olive branch,
    the Castro regime has responded with an act of foreign aggression (such
    as lending military support to Communist forces in Africa or killing
    four Cuban-American pilots) or domestic repression (such as jailing a
    U.S. citizen on bogus espionage charges) so provocative that it
    effectively ruined any chance of détente.

    President Obama's experience is instructive. In April 2009, he relaxed
    U.S. sanctions on travel and remittances to Cuba. Then, a few days
    later, in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Summit of the
    Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he emphasized his sincere determination
    to improve bilateral ties. "The United States seeks a new beginning with
    Cuba," Obama said. "I'm prepared to have my administration engage with
    the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from drugs, migration,
    and economic issues, to human rights, free speech, and democratic
    reform. Now, let me be clear, I'm not interested in talking just for the
    sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations
    in a new direction."

    The Castro brothers had other plans. In December of that same year, Alan
    Gross, a USAID contractor working in Cuba, was arrested and charged with
    spying. His real "crime" was helping the island's tiny Jewish population
    obtain Internet access. Last year, Gross received a 15-year prison
    sentence. He remains in jail today, despite an aggressive U.S. campaign
    to secure his release. According to his lawyer, the 63-year-old Gross
    now "has difficulty walking and has developed a mass behind his right
    shoulder blade." State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said
    that he "is no longer able to walk in his cell." (This past weekend, the
    Cuban government finally handed over his medical records.)

    Gross has essentially become a hostage — a human bargaining chip that
    Raúl Castro & Co. can use to extract concessions from Washington. Former
    New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has tried to broker Gross's
    release, claims that Havana would be willing to exchange him for several
    Cuban intelligence agents currently imprisoned in the United States. Yet
    it is unclear whether the Castro regime would actually endorse such a
    prisoner swap. Moreover, from a U.S. perspective, trading multiple
    foreign agents who were conducting illegal espionage on behalf of an
    anti-American dictatorship, in return for a single U.S. humanitarian
    worker who was unjustly and outrageously detained, would set a terrible

    Gross's initial arrest in 2009 came amid a broader government crackdown
    on dissent, and recent events confirm that opposition leaders remain
    under siege. Earlier this month, a prominent Cuban dissident known as
    "Antúnez" testified before the U.S. Senate via video link, and then was
    promptly arrested and savagely attacked by Cuban security forces.
    According to the Miami Herald, Antúnez was "beaten and sprayed with
    pepper gas in a police jail cell," before eventually being released.

    How could the United States ever have warm relations with a government
    that would brazenly and brutally assault a democracy activist two days
    after he offered Senate testimony? For that matter, if the Castro regime
    really did want a better relationship with Washington, why would it
    engage in such nakedly hostile behavior?

    Which brings us back to the much-maligned U.S. embargo. It is deeply
    unpopular throughout Latin America? Yes. Is it the largest barrier to a
    major thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations? No. The largest barrier is the Cuban
    regime itself, which refuses to implement the most basic political
    reforms or respect the most fundamental human rights. Indeed, for all
    the hoopla over Raúl Castro's modest economic reforms — which Cuban
    dissident economist Oscar Chepe has described as "too little, too
    limited and too late" — his government is still among the most
    repressive on earth. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the island in March,
    a senior Cuban official told reporters, "We are updating our economic
    model, but we are not talking about political reform."

    Some embargo critics argue that American tourism and investment would
    topple the dictatorship or compel it to allow free elections. These
    critics don't appreciate the nature of Cuban tyranny. If the Communist
    leadership doesn't want political reform, there will be no political
    reform. Just ask all the European countries that have been sending
    tourists and investment to Cuba for many years. According to the
    European Union's website, "The EU is Cuba's largest trading partner,
    with a third of all trade, almost one half of foreign direct investment
    and more than half of all tourists coming from Europe."

    I cannot put it better than journalist Charles Lane did in a 1999 New
    Republic article:

    There will be no meaningful thaw with Cuba, and certainly no
    democratic opening there, until a Cuban Gorbachev emerges. Meanwhile,
    perhaps we should make a standing offer to Fidel Castro: We'll lift the
    embargo, provide massive aid to rebuild the island, and give back the
    U.S. base at Guantanamo if he'll simply hold a free, multiparty,
    internationally monitored national election, just like the ones they
    have in every other Latin American country. Let him turn that offer down
    and then try to explain to his people, and the world, why he did.

    Raúl Castro is not the Cuban Gorbachev. But when he (age 81) and Fidel
    (nearly 86) finally die, genuine political reformers may emerge and take
    power. Only then will a true U.S.-Cuban détente be possible.

    Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica's ambassador to the United
    States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American
    Studies at the Hudson Institute.