Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Could a U.S.-Cuba prisoner swap break the ice?

    Could a U.S.-Cuba prisoner swap break the ice?
    By Ray Sanchez, Elise Labott and Patrick Oppmann, CNN
    November 7, 2014 — Updated 2343 GMT (0743 HKT)

    STORY HIGHLIGHTS
    Alan Gross’ imprisonment in Cuba is major impediment to better relations
    with Havana
    Cuba says Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor, tried to destabilize
    its government
    Reforms in Cuba and changing attitudes in the United States could
    portend a new beginning
    Some say it’s time for Gross to be swapped with Cubans held in the U.S.

    (CNN) — Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor imprisoned in Cuba
    for smuggling satellite equipment onto the island, is being held at
    Havana’s Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital.
    With peeling canary-yellow walls and hordes of people coming and going,
    the aging building doesn’t look like a place where Cuba would hold its
    most valuable prisoner.
    But police officers and soldiers surround the hospital. Inside, Cuban
    special forces guard the 65-year-old U.S. citizen, emotionally and
    physically frail and approaching his fifth year in confinement.
    North of the Florida Straits, Gross’ imprisonment is seen as the major
    impediment to better relations with Havana.
    Now, however, midway through the second term of President Barack Obama,
    several signs of possible change have emerged. Senior administration
    officials and Cuba observers say reforms on the island and changing
    attitudes in the United States have created an opening for improved
    relations.
    The signs include the admission this week by senior administration
    officials that talks about a swap between Gross and three imprisoned
    Cuban agents — part of group originally known as the Cuban Five — have
    taken place. In addition, recent editorials in The New York Times have
    recommended an end to the longstanding U.S. embargo against Cuba and
    even a prisoner swap for Gross.

    Who is Alan Gross?
    Gross is serving a 15-year sentence for bringing satellite
    communications equipment to Cuba as part of his work as a subcontractor
    for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
    U.S. officials said Gross, who is Jewish, was trying to help Cuba’s
    small Jewish community bypass stringent restrictions on Internet access.
    Cuban authorities, however, countered that he was part of a plot to
    create a “Cuban Spring” and destabilize the island’s single-party
    Communist system in a clandestine effort to expand Internet access.
    Gross had traveled to Cuba multiple times as a tourist.
    Gross had worked for Development Alternatives Inc., a Maryland-based
    subcontractor that received a multimillion-dollar U.S. contract for
    so-called democracy building on the island.
    Fulton Armstrong was a senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations
    Committee under then-Sen. John Kerry when Gross was arrested. The
    subcontractor’s mission, under what Armstrong characterized as USAID
    “regime-change” programs, was “dangerous and counterproductive,” he said.

    Alan Gross ‘withdrawn,’ saying goodbye
    A 2012 lawsuit filed by Gross’ wife, Judy, accused USAID and Development
    Alternatives Inc. of negligence. It said the agencies had a contract “to
    establish operations supporting the creation of a USAID Mission” in Cuba.
    The operation involved the smuggling of parabolic satellite dishes
    hidden in Styrofoam boogie boards, Armstrong said. Cash was transported
    to Cuba to finance demonstrations against the Castro regime.
    “They were sending this poor guy into one of the most sophisticated
    counterintelligence operating environments in the world,” said
    Armstrong, who spent 25 years as a CIA officer. “It was not credible his
    story about the Jews. It didn’t make sense.”
    In March 2011, Gross was tried behind closed doors for two days and
    convicted of attempting to set up an Internet network for Cuban
    dissidents “to promote destabilizing activities and subvert
    constitutional order.”
    Gross’ lawyer, Scott Gilbert, said years of confinement have taken a
    toll. His client has lost more than 100 pounds. He is losing his teeth.
    Gross’ hips are so weak that he can barely walk.
    Judy Gross: Husband ‘depressed,’ ‘hopeless’
    Gross, who has lost vision in one eye, has threatened to take his life,
    Gilbert said. Frustrated with the lack of progress in his case, the
    American has refused to see U.S. diplomats who once visited him at least
    monthly.
    “Emotionally, Alan is done,” Gilbert said. “He said goodbye to his
    family in July. … He has prepared himself, as he has said, to come
    back to the United States, dead or alive. Time is very short.”
    Who are the Cuban Five?
    The name may conjure images of the tropical equivalent of the Jackson 5,
    but the Cuban Five are agents convicted in 2001 for intelligence
    gathering in Miami. They were part of what was called the Wasp Network,
    which collected intelligence on prominent Cuban-American exile leaders
    and U.S. military bases.
    The five — Ruben Campa, also known as Fernando Gonzalez; Rene Gonzalez;
    Gerardo Hernandez; Luis Medina, also known as Ramon Labanino; and
    Antonio Guerrero — were arrested in September 1998.
    Hernandez, the group leader, also was convicted of conspiracy to commit
    murder for engineering the downing of two planes flown by the exile
    group Brothers to the Rescue in 1996. He’s serving two life sentences.
    Cuban fighter jets shot down the unarmed Cessnas as they flew toward the
    island, where they had previously dropped anti-government leaflets. Four
    men died.
    At trial, the defendants said their mission was to gather intelligence
    in Miami to defend Cuba from anti-Castro groups they feared would attack
    the island. Seven members of the network cooperated with U.S.
    authorities and are believed to be in witness protection.
    In February, Fernando Gonzalez was released from a U.S. federal prison
    after serving 15 years for failing to register as a foreign agent and
    possessing forged documents.
    In 2011, Rene Gonzalez was released after serving most of his 15-year
    sentence.
    In Cuba, the two spies were welcomed as heroes. They were considered
    “political prisoners” unjustly punished in American courts. Their faces
    appeared on billboards throughout the island. State-controlled media
    labeled them “terrorism fighters.”
    A federal appeals court originally threw out their convictions but later
    reinstated them.
    Defense lawyers accused lower courts of unfairly refusing to move the
    trial to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from politically charged Miami, where
    anti-Castro hostility was more prevalent. They also raised serious
    questions about the jury selection process.
    The trial for the Cuban Five was the only judicial proceeding in U.S.
    history condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Amnesty
    International also raised serious doubts about the fairness and
    impartiality of their trial.

    Why do some people believe the time is right for a swap?
    With the U.S. midterm elections over, some Cuba observers believe the
    time is ripe for a breakthrough in relations. As a second-term
    president, Obama doesn’t have to worry about re-election.
    “The political stars are well aligned because both Obama and (Cuban
    leader) Raul Castro have repeatedly said that they’d like to see an
    improvement in relations,” said William LeoGrande, an American
    University professor and co-author of a new book, “Back Channel to
    Cuba,” which chronicles decades of negotiations between the two countries.
    In April 2015, at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, the two leaders
    may have an opportunity to meet face to face.
    Before then, the White House can lay the groundwork for agreements aimed
    at “burying the historical hatchet between the U.S. and Cuba,” said
    Peter Kornbluh, co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba” and senior analyst
    at the National Security Archive.
    “Richard Nixon went all the way to China, and Barack Obama only has to
    go to Panama,” he said.
    In Washington, senior administration officials predict more cooperation,
    with an important caveat.
    “There is stuff we can do, but it has to start with Gross,” one of the
    officials said.
    Administration officials say talks about a possible swap have taken
    place, but they’re hesitant to speak about whether those discussions are
    progressing. The White House came under fire after the recent swap of
    five Taliban detainees for the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
    Bergdahl was freed last spring after nearly five years in captivity at
    the hands of militants in Afghanistan. His controversial release came in
    exchange for five mid- to high-level Taliban detainees from Guantanamo
    Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
    “They’ve been in jail for 16 years,” LeoGrande said of the Cuban agents,
    “and on humanitarian grounds alone it’s reasonable to release them when
    we stand to gain the release of an American citizen.
    “It’s a better deal than trading five Taliban commanders for one U.S.
    soldier.”
    No one knows how the incoming Republican-controlled Senate will handle
    Cuba policy. Most Republicans don’t feel strongly about the Cuba issue,
    and some lawmakers in agricultural states have supported a lifting of
    the trade and financial embargo in force for more than 50 years.
    With Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, soon to be replaced as chairman
    of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of the most powerful
    opponents to greater engagement with Cuba will have a decreased platform
    from which to criticize the administration on Cuba issues. But Menendez
    will remain on the committee, as will Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida,
    another strong Cuba critic.

    Why do others say the swap won’t happen?
    A senior Senate aide familiar with the Cuba issue said the drumbeat for
    improved relations with the island always comes in the waning years of
    every Democratic administration. The aide said it was “politically hard
    to believe” that the Cuba issue will take precedence over critical
    foreign policy challenges Obama faces around the world.
    On Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that
    while the President has said Cuba policy is worth reconsidering, the
    administration has “significant concerns … about (the Cuban
    government’s) human rights record, their failure to observe basic human
    rights, as it relates to not just the illegitimate detention of Mr.
    Gross, but as it relates to the basic rights to free speech and
    political expression of the people of Cuba.”
    Some longtime Cuba observers are skeptical of the prisoner-swap idea.
    “It’s conceivable that it could happen now,” said Armstrong, the former
    senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Who knows?
    (Attorney General) Eric Holder is leaving the and Obama is now pretty
    much a lame duck, and Bob Menendez will no longer be chairman of foreign
    relations, and Alan Gross should be home by Thanksgiving or Christmas or
    Hanukkah. Enough is enough. But we’ve been at this point before.”

    Are there precedents for an exchange?
    In “Back Channel to Cuba,” LeoGrande and Kornbluh describe backdoor
    negotiations in 1963 that led to the release of more than two dozen
    Americans jailed in Cuba, including members of a CIA team caught
    planting listening devices in Havana.
    The U.S. gave up four Cuban prisoners, including an attaché at the U.N.
    mission and two indicted for planning acts of sabotage. The fourth was a
    Cuban convicted of murder for killing a 9-year-old girl who was struck
    by a stray bullet during a fight with anti-Castro Cubans when Fidel
    Castro visited New York in 1960.
    Castro granted clemency to the American prisoners. And the United States
    released the Cubans in what the Justice Department described as an act
    of clemency “in the national interest.”
    In 1979, President Jimmy Carter granted clemency and released three
    Puerto Rican nationalists, including Lolita Lebron, who had been
    convicted for opening fire in the U.S. House of Representatives and
    wounding five congressmen. The deal was part of a backdoor “humanitarian
    exchange” in which Fidel Castro released four CIA agents 11 days later.
    Said Kornbluh, “It is time to bring U.S.-Cuba relations into the 21st
    century.”
    CNN’s Ray Sanchez reported and wrote in New York, Elise Labott reported
    from Washington and Patrick Oppmann reported from Havana.

    Source: Could a U.S.-Cuba prisoner swap break the ice? – CNN.com –
    http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/07/world/americas/united-states-cuba-relations/index.html