Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Alan Gross – The key to a US-Cuba thaw

    Alan Gross: The key to a US-Cuba thaw
    By Barbara Plett Usher
    BBC state department correspondent

    It’s been exactly five years since the US government contractor Alan
    Gross was arrested in Havana, dashing hopes amongst anti-embargo
    advocates that President Barack Obama would make a bold move on Cuba policy.

    But a forthcoming regional summit has focused attention on whether Mr
    Obama will use his remaining two years in office to normalise relations
    with Cuba, and a resolution of Mr Gross’s case would be a key part of that.

    The American prisoner has himself raised the stakes. When he turned 65
    in May he told his family he refused to spend another birthday in
    prison, suggesting he would kill himself if he isn’t released.

    Alan Gross was jailed for 15 years for committing “acts against the
    integrity of the state”.

    He’d been working to build internet access for local communities that
    bypassed government censorship, bringing in satellite equipment that is
    illegal in Cuba.

    Washington maintains the project was aimed at promoting democracy and Mr
    Gross committed no crime. But the Cuban authorities saw his activities
    as a covert attempt at regime change.

    At that point Mr Obama had rolled back the hardline approach to Cuba
    taken by his predecessor, George W Bush.

    He had reinstated cultural and academic exchanges, allowed
    Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and send money to their relatives, and
    opened talks on issues of mutual interest.

    But he has taken no steps towards easing America’s trade and financial
    sanctions on the island. It’s not clear if he would have done so, but Mr
    Gross’s case ensured that he did not.

    Now though, Mr Obama is expected to meet the Cuban President Raul Castro
    at the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama in April.

    Latin American countries insisted that Cuba no longer be excluded,
    setting the scene for “the most extraordinary moment in Cuban/American
    relations in recent history,” says Peter Kornbluh, co-author of the
    recently published Back Channel to Cuba.

    Political shifts in the United States have indeed made fundamental
    change feasible.

    Washington began imposing sanctions on Cuba in 1961 with the aim of
    ousting the socialist regime of Fidel Castro. Although the policy has
    failed, any attempt to change it has been resisted by an influential
    block of Cuban-American voters concentrated in Florida.

    But the virulently anti-Castro generation in Miami is aging and polls
    show that younger Cuban-Americans and recent immigrants are more open to
    engagement.

    Mid-term elections in November that handed Republicans control of the
    Senate may also have given the administration some room to manoeuvre.
    The Democratic senator and Cuba hawk heading the Senate Foreign
    Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, has lost his position, which he
    would have used to oppose any openings to the Castros.

    Meanwhile in Cuba, Fidel Castro quietly retired in 2006 and economic
    pressures forced his brother Raul to institute reforms that have begun
    to liberalise the state-controlled economy.

    Raul Castro also released more than 100 political prisoners in 2010 and
    last year lifted restrictions on Cubans travelling abroad.

    The pace and scope of the economic reforms have been criticised, and
    despite slightly better access to the internet there’s still “no free
    press or big change in freedom of expression and association” in the
    one-party state, a Western diplomat in Havana says.

    But anti-embargo advocates and even some dissidents say lifting the
    American economic sanctions could help open up political space, arguing
    that the Cuban government uses US policy as an excuse to justify repression.

    Rafael Hernandez, the editor of the Cuban social science journal Temas,
    says the government has good reason to see the US as a threat, but “for
    the vast majority of Cubans those [US] changes could facilitate reforms.”

    “The question of a foreign power that openly aims to undermine the
    political system in Cuba has been for the last 55 years a domestic
    factor, it is part of us,” he told the BBC.

    But “if we don’t have to think so much about the US as a threat, that
    would facilitate a public debate that is not framed within the national
    security mentality”.

    Cuba clearly is on the minds of the editors of the New York Times.

    In the last month the paper has published six weekend editorials in
    English and in Spanish asking the US administration to re-establish
    diplomatic ties with Cuba.

    Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times’s editorial page editor, told the
    BBC that the six editorials have been in line with the newspaper’s
    longstanding position on Cuba and the embargo.

    Nevertheless, it is intriguing that the Times has been running so many
    consecutive pieces on the same country, with clearly defined intervals,
    in two languages and in moments when President Barack Obama is defining
    his agenda for his remaining two years in office.

    The motivation behind the paper’s month-long crusade is that the editors
    believe that “for the first time in more than 50 years”, the situation
    both in Cuba and the US favours such deep political change.

    While there is less resistance to change US policy now, there is no real
    incentive for an administration busy with a host of foreign crises.

    “When it comes to Cuba, there’s no consequence for supporting the status
    quo,” says Representative Jim McGovern, an anti-embargo campaigner, “so
    the challenge is to find a way to build political pressure.”

    If the administration does decide to change the status quo, a prisoner
    swap might be the place to begin.

    The Cuban government has long pushed for the release of five convicted
    Cuban spies imprisoned in the US – two were recently allowed to return
    to Cuba after finishing their sentences.

    So far Washington has refused to exchange the remaining three for Alan
    Gross, insisting the cases are not equivalent. But such a step would
    make it easier to move towards a resumption of diplomatic relations.

    “This would be the most important gesture the US could make to start
    normalising relations,” says Mariela Castro, a Cuban Member of
    Parliament and the daughter of Raul Castro.

    “And it’s in the capacity of President Obama to take this decision,” she
    told the BBC in an interview. “If Alan Gross is still in Cuba it’s
    because Obama hasn’t taken the necessary step to give our three comrades
    back. If he did, Gross would immediately return to America.”

    Besides restoring diplomatic relations, President Obama could remove
    Cuba from the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor
    terrorist organisations, since it no longer does. The designation along
    with Sudan, Iran and Syria is a source of some of the most crippling
    financial sanctions.

    And he could significantly ease the effects of the economic embargo,
    although he doesn’t have the authority to lift it – only Congress could
    do that.

    Whatever the case, Cuba experts have their eye on the next five months,
    which they’ve branded a diplomatic window of opportunity.

    Source: BBC News – Alan Gross: The key to a US-Cuba thaw –