Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Is Washington Letting This American Rot in a Cuban Jail?

    Is Washington Letting This American Rot in a Cuban Jail?
    Havana keeps saying that it’s willing to let this U.S. contractor go.
    But the White House and Congress keep rejecting the offers.
    BY YOCHI DREAZEN | NOVEMBER 15, 2013

    Four years ago, Cuban security agents arrested an American subcontractor
    named Alan Gross, accused him of spying for the U.S., and sentenced him
    to 15 years in a Havana prison. Gross has been languishing there ever
    since, a victim of Obama administration inaction, Congressional
    meddling, and the difficulties of negotiating with a regime as mercurial
    and opaque as the government of Cuban strongman Raúl Castro.

    The story of Gross’s continuing imprisonment — his sentence is set to
    run for 11 more years — offers a case study of Cuba’s potency as a
    political issue on Capitol Hill, where powerful lawmakers have helped
    block at least one deal that could have brought the contractor home. The
    White House, for its part, has shown little interest in substantive
    negotiations with the Cubans, in part because Havana’s demands have
    shifted considerably over the years. Gross, who traveled to Cuba to
    deliver satellite phones and other communications equipment to the
    island’s small Jewish community, has lost nearly 100 pounds and watched,
    from less than 100 miles away, as his daughter developed breast cancer
    and his 90-year-old mother’s health deteriorated sharply because of her
    own battle with lung cancer. Barring something unforeseen,
    he’ll never see her again.

    The Gross case isn’t simply about the fate of a single American.
    U.S.-Cuban relations have been frozen for years, but President Obama
    took office in 2009 with what seemed like a clear political mandate to
    change that. He had won Florida after taking more of the Cuban-American
    vote than any Democrat in decades, and the White House quickly began
    exploring concrete ways of relaxing the sanctions, making it easier for
    Cuban-Americans to travel home, and improving diplomatic ties between
    the two countries. Those efforts were largely put on ice after Gross was
    arrested and sentenced, and it’s not clear when, or if, they’ll resume.

    The latest twist in the saga is just spinning up now, with a loose-knit
    coalition of roughly 50 senators from both parties working to finalize a
    letter to the White House that uses some of the most forceful language
    to date to press President Obama to cut a deal with Havana. The letter,
    obtained by Foreign Policy, calls on Obama to “take whatever steps are
    in the national interest” to get Gross, 64, out of Cuba.

    An earlier draft, portions of which were also obtained by FP, was far
    more explicit in calling for a negotiated settlement, with lawmakers
    pressing Obama to take “any measures necessary” to free Gross. People
    familiar with the matter say that the language was softened because of
    strong opposition from two of the most powerful and prominent members of
    the Senate, both of Cuban-American descent: Robert Menendez of New
    Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
    Committee, and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, who is widely seen as
    a likely contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

    People involved in the Senate deliberations say that Menendez and Rubio
    have also been privately lobbying some of the 50 senators who have
    expressed a willingness to sign on to the letter to reconsider their
    support and remove their names. Legislative aides who have been working
    the issue expect at least a handful of the original signatories to drop
    off before the letter gets to the White House.

    “Menendez and Rubio have been explaining to members that the original
    letter seemed innocuous, but it was really calling for the Obama
    administration to make more concessions to Castro,” said Mauricio
    Claver-Carone, the director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and a close
    ally of the two senators. “They’re making the case that we’ve been
    negotiating with the Cubans for four years, that it hasn’t worked, and
    that its time to impose consequential actions on Cuba until it frees
    Alan Gross.”

    The two lawmakers are pressing their case in a White House letter of
    their own. The letter, obtained by FP, calls for Obama to work towards
    Gross’s “immediate and unconditional release,” as opposed to holding any
    negotiations — or making any concessions — to bring it about. The
    seven other signatories include New York Democrat Chuck Schumer and an
    array of Cuba hawks like Arizona Republican John McCain and South
    Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. A Menendez aide said the letter will
    be delivered Friday.

    The Gross case is so sensitive that none of the lawmakers and Capitol
    Hill staffers involved in the internal government deliberations over his
    release or the talks with the Cubans would speak for the record. The
    White House declined to comment and referred questions to the State
    Department, where a spokesperson said “securing Alan Gross’s immediate
    release is a top priority of the U.S.”

    “We use and will continue to use every appropriate diplomatic channel to
    press for Mr. Gross’s release, both publicly and privately,” the
    spokesperson said.

    Gross’s lawyer, Scott Gilbert, said the administration could be doing
    far more. Gilbert said the White House had erred by arguing that the
    Cuban government should release Gross unconditionally before Washington
    would address the broader U.S.-Cuba relationship while simultaneously
    calling for an improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations in order to then
    bring about his freedom.

    “You have a self-created ‘Catch-22,’” he said.

    The chain of events that would ultimately end with Gross’s arrest began
    fifteen years ago with the passage of the Helms-Burton Act, a
    hard-hitting bill that formalized the decades-old, and largely
    ineffective, U.S. embargo against Cuba. Congress approved the bill in
    March 1996, just weeks after Cuban MiG warplanes shot down a pair of
    small planes operated by a U.S.-based dissident group called Brothers to
    the Rescue, killing the four people aboard.

    “In their memory, I will continue to do everything I can to help the
    tide of democracy that has swept our entire hemisphere finally, finally
    reach the shores of Cuba,” President Clinton said at the time.

    The legislation directed the U.S. Agency for International Development
    to devote more resources to democracy promotion work in Cuba, and the
    George W. Bush administration created a program designed to help
    ordinary Cubans evade the Castro regime’s strict controls on their phone
    and Internet usage. The money devoted to that initiative jumped from
    $3.5 million in 2000 to $20 million in 2009. A Bethesda-based firm
    called Development Alternatives, Inc., or DAI, received much of that
    funding. DAI, in turn, hired Gross to bring satellite phones and other
    communications equipment to Cuba. He began traveling to the island in
    early 2009.

    Gross’s ordeal began on the night of December, 2009, just minutes after
    he finished a phone call with his wife Judy. He was slated to fly home
    the next day, but Gross never left Cuba. Instead, according to a
    detailed account in Foreign Affairs, four Cuban security agents knocked
    on the door of Gross’s room in Havana’s Hotel Presidente and arrested
    him as soon as he opened it up. They took him to a waiting car and drove
    him to a nearby military base. He has been in jail ever since.

    Gross has acknowledged bringing satellite phones and other sensitive
    communications equipment into Cuba, but said he was simply trying to
    make it easier for the island’s small Jewish community to connect with
    the outside world over the Internet. In court testimony and media
    appearances, Gross said that he wasn’t aware that he was doing anything
    illegal.

    The Cuban government, however, said that Gross was a spy who had been
    sent to Cuba to help ordinary citizens break the laws of their country.
    Cubans need formal permission from the government to use satellite
    phones or to connect to the Internet. The Cuban government moved Gross
    to a military prison and prepared to put him on trial.

    Backchannel negotiations for Gross’s release had begun shortly after his
    arrest. People familiar with the matter say that the Cuban government
    initially indicated that it would consider releasing Gross if the
    American pro-democracy programs on the island were eliminated or sharply
    cut back. These people say that USAID quietly agreed to spend only $15
    million of the $20 million that had been budgeted for the programming in
    2010. The agency also said it would spend just $10 million of the money
    the following year, these sources said. Gross’s supporters would later
    point out that $10 million seemed like an astonishingly small amount of
    money to pay to get an American citizen out of a third-world jail.

    A person with direct knowledge of the talks said that word of the
    changes leaked to Menendez and Republican Representative Ileana
    Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, a Cuban-American who was then the ranking
    member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Both lawmakers opposed
    making any concessions whatsoever to the Cuban government. “Menendez
    communicated to the White House, very bluntly, that there would be
    serious repercussions if the money wasn’t spent,” this person said.
    USAID duly spent the full $20 million set aside for 2010. It would
    ultimately spend $20 million in 2011 as well.

    Talks between the U.S. and Cuba continued, hampered by the levels of
    mistrust and hostility that had built up over the past few decades. In
    the fall of 2010, according to Foreign Affairs, then-Assistant Secretary
    of State Arturo Valenzuela met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno
    Rodriguez in New York to discuss the case. Valenzuela, according to
    Foreign Affairs, said Cuba had to release Gross before Washington would
    be willing to discuss other aspects of the U.S.-Cuba relationship.
    Rodriguez, the magazine reported, was angry that Valenzuela was laying
    down preconditions without making any promises of his own. The meeting
    ended without a deal. Valenzuela, now a professor at Georgetown, didn’t
    respond to repeated requests for comment.

    Gross’s trial began in Havana in March 2011. He apologized to the Cuban
    government and insisted that he hadn’t been trying to subvert Cuban law
    or weaken the powers of the Castro government.

    “I do deeply regret that my actions have been misinterpreted as harmful
    and a threat against the security and independence of Cuba,” Gross said
    in a transcript of his hearing later released by one of his attorneys.
    “I am deeply sorry for being a trusting fool. I was duped. I was used.
    And my family and I have paid dearly for this.”

    The court decided Gross hadn’t paid enough and sentenced him to 15 years
    in a Cuban prison, a surprisingly harsh punishment for an American
    citizen then in his early 60s. In November 2012, Gross and his wife Judy
    filed a $60 million lawsuit against his former employer, DAI, accusing
    the firm of failing to adequately prepare him for the challenges and
    dangers of working in Cuba. The family settled the lawsuit this past
    May, without publicizing the terms and with neither party admitting fault.

    “We have been clear from day one that Alan’s safe return to his family
    is our first priority,” DAI President and Chief Executive Officer Jim
    Boomgard said in a statement at the time. “Settling this litigation
    allows us to work together on that overriding goal, which should be the
    focus for everyone involved in this case.”

    Judy Gross, in the same statement, said she was “pleased” the company
    had committed itself to doing everything in her power to win her
    husband’s release.

    “We want Alan back home, safe and sound,” she said.

    There’s no sign that will happen anytime soon, however. The on-again,
    off-again talks have foundered over the future of the so-called “Cuban
    Five,” a quintet of Cuban intelligence officers who were convicted of
    espionage and a variety of other crimes in 2001. One of them, Gerardo
    Hernández, was linked to the February 1996 downing of the two civilian
    planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, the U.S.-based dissent group.
    He and three others remain in prison. The fifth, a U.S. citizen named
    René González, was paroled in 2011 and was allowed to return to Cuba in
    April 2013 for his father’s funeral. A federal judge ruled that González
    could stay in Cuba permanently if he gave up his American citizenship.

    Several Americans who have worked on the Gross case for years said the
    Cubans have repeatedly offered to hold talks over his fate without
    preconditions, but didn’t get a response from the Obama administration.
    Other Cuban officials indicated to U.S. representatives that any
    resolution of the Gross case would have to involve the freeing of one or
    more of the four Cubans. An American who was involved in earlier phases
    of the talks said that he thinks the Cubans might also have been open to
    a deal if the U.S. had agreed to give the men new trials or improve
    their living conditions. “We’re talking conjugal visits, things like
    that,” the person said.

    There appears to be little chance of that sort of swap happening.
    Secretary of State John Kerry, who held a secret meeting with Rodriguez,
    the Cuban foreign minister, during his time in the Senate, bluntly told
    the House Foreign Affairs Committee in April that the Obama
    administration wouldn’t be willing to release the Cuban prisoners in
    exchange for Gross. The contractor, he said, should instead be released
    on “humanitarian” grounds.

    “They were and have been attempting to trade Alan Gross for the five
    spies that are in prison here in the U.S., and we’ve refused to do that
    because there’s no equivalency,” he said. “Alan Gross is wrongly
    imprisoned, and we’re not going to trade as if it’s spy for spy.”

    Raul Castro, Cuba watchers say, doesn’t appear willing to accept
    anything less than the freeing of some or all of the four Cuban spies.

    “Raul raised the cost of letting Alan go,” said a Hill staffer with
    knowledge of the case. “The ask is now the Cuban Four; if gets less than
    that, he loses face. He’s boxed himself in and needs to be able to show
    something he’s not likely to get.”

    Last spring, Rodriguez sat down with Gilbert and Judy Gross in Havana
    and floated the idea of sending Gross back to the U.S. for a two-week
    parole so the contractor could see his dying mother. Gilbert said the
    talks never matured because U.S. representatives “weren’t given clear
    directives” from senior Obama administration officials about whether to
    pursue a deal.

    While the tussling continues, Gross is languishing in a Cuban jail,
    where he spends 23 hours per day in a small cell that he shares with two
    other prisoners. Prison appears to be taking an enormous physical and
    mental toll. A lump on Gross’s shoulder led to a temporary cancer scare.
    He missed one of his daughter’s weddings and wasn’t there for her when
    she was diagnosed with breast cancer. His mother, 90, appears to be in
    the final stages of herlung cancer battle. Gross isn’t slated to be
    freed until 2024, when he will be 75 years old. Gilbert, his lawyer,
    said hope of an early release is the only thing keeping Gross alive. If
    the U.S. government doesn’t figure out a way of bringing the contractor
    home, Gilbert said that he expects his client to die in prison. “Keeping
    him there for 11 years would be a death sentence,” Gilbert said.

    Source: “Is Washington Letting This American Rot in a Cuban Jail? – By
    Yochi Dreazen | Foreign Policy” –
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/11/15/washington_is_letting_this_american_rot_in_a_cuban_jail