Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Obama Shouldn’t Forget Our Man in Havana

    Obama Shouldn’t Forget Our Man in Havana
    7 MAR 19, 2014 4:39 PM ET
    By Jeffrey Goldberg

    When U.S. President Barack Obama looks abroad, he sees only the
    possibility of frustration and more frustration. He will not be
    supervising the return of Crimea to Ukraine. He and the West are unable
    to end the slaughter of Syria’s citizens by its government. There is
    little chance his administration will forge a final peace deal between
    Israelis and Palestinians.

    I believe that Obama should continue to apply himself assiduously to
    these problems. But I also have a suggestion for something he could do
    that might actually work. It’s something that would help undo a
    five-decade-old American policy disaster, something that would begin the
    process of resetting (to borrow a word) the U.S.’s relations with an
    entire region, and something that would free a U.S. government
    contractor — an American whose imprisonment is largely his own
    government’s fault — from a foreign prison.

    The dysfunctional U.S. relationship with Cuba is Washington’s
    longest-running tragicomedy. For almost 55 years, the U.S. has treated
    Cuba like a pariah state in the hope that sanctions, embargoes and broad
    isolation would bring about the end of the Communist government. As a
    general rule, if a policy hasn’t worked in more than half a century,
    it’s probably time to find a new policy.

    But a hard-line Cuban exile community, and its supporters in Congress,
    has long made it difficult for any administration to imagine a new path
    forward. Why, it’s almost as if opponents of a normalized relationship
    with Cuba want to see the Communists under the Castro brothers rule the
    island forever! A normal, functioning relationship, built on respect and
    trade and the exchange of people and ideas, might lead to the very thing
    the embargo has failed to achieve: a more open, less-besieged Cuba.

    American attitudes are changing in ways that would make an Obama push to
    normalize relations less of a political risk. A recent poll conducted on
    behalf of the Atlantic Council found that 56 percent of respondents
    nationally favored a change in the U.S.-Cuba policy, but not only that:
    63 percent of Floridians polled wanted a change, and 62 percent of
    Latinos nationwide. The survey found that even 52 percent of
    self-identified Republicans supported normalization of ties.

    I can also report, based on my own data-driven journalism, that exactly
    zero percent of Obama administration officials with broad national
    security and foreign policy responsibilities think that U.S. Cuba policy
    makes any sense. In fact, to most foreign policy practitioners, it’s an
    obvious negative: U.S. relations with much of Latin America are strained
    precisely because of our archaic approach to the challenge of Cuba. U.S.
    policy makers with responsibility for the Western hemisphere report with
    regularity the puzzlement and frustration of Latin American leaders, who
    note — correctly — that the U.S. somehow manages to maintain
    productive relations with the People’s Republic of China. We moved, a
    very long time ago, away from a policy of regime change in the matter of
    Beijing’s Communists. But our policy today on Cuba is still one of
    regime change — a policy put in place in the days of Presidents Dwight
    D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

    Which brings us to one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to
    normalization, the imprisonment, in a Cuban military hospital, of one
    Alan Gross, a resident of suburban Maryland and a contractor for the
    U.S. Agency for International Development, which dispatched Gross in
    2009 to Cuba on a semi-covert mission so farcical and lunkheaded as to
    defy belief.

    Gross, who is now 64, was hired by a USAID contractor, Development
    Alternatives Inc., to deliver satellite Internet equipment to Cuban Jews
    as part of a program funded as part of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which
    authorized the U.S. government to engage in “democracy building efforts”
    that would speed the removal of the Castro brothers. How, you ask, could
    the provision of a modest quantity of satellite Internet equipment to
    Cuba’s tiny — and notably unpersecuted — Jewish community, a community
    that already has access to the Internet (I e-mail with its members quite
    frequently), speed the downfall of Fidel and Raul Castro? If you can
    figure out the answer to this question, then you could work for the U.S.

    Soon after the passage of Helms-Burton, the government of Cuba outlawed
    collaboration with the program. In other words, any American government
    employee or contractor who visited Cuba to advance the Helms-Burton
    mission would be breaking Cuban law. You would think, of course, that
    the U.S. would send its best secret agents — think Ben Affleck in
    “Argo” — to advance this obviously dangerous mission. But Gross had no
    experience in semi-covert operations, no knowledge of Spanish and no
    particular training for this mission. He also seemingly didn’t have much
    sense that what he was doing was illegal, at least at first: By his
    third trip, he was warning his employers that “this is very risky
    business in no uncertain terms.” On his fifth trip to Cuba — on a
    tourist visa — he was arrested. After a trial, he was sentenced to 15
    years in prison.

    And then he was, in essence, abandoned by the government that sent him
    to Cuba.

    His lawyer in Washington, Scott Gilbert, told me last week that, when he
    described the harebrained mission USAID hired his well-meaning but
    entirely unprepared client to carry out, government officials reacted
    with a combination of amusement and horror. “I ask people, ‘If this
    project came across your desk when you were at USAID, what would you
    have thought?’ The answer I often get is that they would have thought it
    was an interoffice practical joke.” He went on, “I’ve been told by
    former USAID officials that never in the history of that agency have
    they sent a civilian into an environment like that of Cuba, a country
    with which we have no diplomatic relations. As I’ve told U.S. government
    officials, you knew with certainty that he would be arrested. Anyone who
    has visited Cuba would understand that. What you guessed wrong on was
    the severity of the penalty.”

    Gilbert has been working pro bono for several years to help free Gross.
    But he is getting no help at all from the government that sent him to
    Cuba. “The U.S. government has effectively done nothing — nothing,” he
    says, in the years since Gross was arrested, “to attempt to obtain his
    freedom other than standing up and demanding his unconditional release,
    which is like looking up at the sky and demanding rain.”

    As it happens, there is an obvious way to obtain Gross’s release. Three
    Cuban intelligence agents are sitting today in American prisons. They
    are members of what is known as the “Cuban Five,” a network of spies
    rounded up in 1998. The Cuban Five were spying mainly on right-wing
    Cuban dissident groups in Florida. Two of the five have already
    completed their sentences and have been returned to Cuba. Three remain
    in prison, and one, the leader of the group, Gerardo Hernandez, was
    sentenced to two life terms. The Cuban government is desperate to see
    the return of these men, and would, by all accounts, be open to a trade.
    There is huge precedent for such a trade (the U.S. conducted such
    exchanges throughout the Cold War), and the Cuban foreign minister,
    Bruno Rodriguez, has repeatedly indicated an openness to meet U.S.
    officials without preconditions to discuss what he has termed a
    humanitarian issue.

    The U.S. argues — correctly — that Gross was not a spy, and that
    therefore his actions were not equivalent to those of the Cuban Five.
    But these sorts of trades are never neat. The U.S. should give up the
    Cuban Five for Gross, especially because its own incompetence caused his
    imprisonment. It should also negotiate with Cuba over Gross because this
    is the only way toward normalization.

    “Establishing a process to return Alan Gross home and the remaining
    members of the Cuban Five to Cuba is necessary for more than just the
    obvious humanitarian reasons,” Julia Sweig, a prominent Latin America
    expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This could open the door to
    a fundamental realignment of the entire relationship, and set it on a
    normal and healthy path, and also vastly enhance Washington’s standing
    across Latin America.”

    At the very least, negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba would begin to
    right a wrong the U.S. committed against one its own.

    To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at

    Source: Obama Shouldn’t Forget Our Man in Havana – Bloomberg View –