One often notes a certain surreal quality in U.S.-Cuban relations. Recently, for example, statements out of the State Department have suggested that everything hinges on the Gross case, that the U.S. will take no steps to improve relations with Cuba until it releases Alan Gross, the USAID contractor arrested in Cuba almost four years ago. Accompanying State Department statements have suggested that Gross was innocent of any wrongdoing and had simply been distributing cell phones to an isolated Jewish community.
If only that had been the case. In fact, he had been distributing sophisticated communications equipment in clear violation of Cuban law. According to an Associated Press article dated Feb 12, 2012, Gross described his activities as “very risky business.” They must have been for he was being paid almost $600,000 for his efforts! The same article also reports that he was using a special SIM card during his last trip to Cuba – a device intended to keep satellite phone transmissions from being pinpointed, and normally available only to CIA and Defense Department personnel and sometimes to those connected with the State Department. And no wonder he had one. Gross was employed by Developmental Alternatives Inc (DAI), which had a multi-million dollar contract with USAID to operate in Cuba under a program called for by the Helms-Burton Act to promote democracy, i.e., to bring about regime change. The Cubans considered the program subversive.
As for the suggestion that Gross was just distributing cell phones to an isolated Jewish community, Adela Dworin, the president of Cuba’s largest Jewish community organization, has denied any link to Gross and stated that the Jewish community “does not need any of the sophisticated equipment that Gross allegedly introduced in Cuba; we have a completely legal internet.”
That certainly has been my experience. The Jewish community in Cuba is extremely well organized and has long had excellent internet connections, with one another and with groups outside Cuba.
If it is the U.S. Government’s position that any improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations depends upon Gross’ release, what steps has the U.S. taken to bring that about? What quid pro quos has it offered? None that I can see. And yet, improving relations with Cuba is (or should be) of marked importance to the U.S. for our Cuban policy is condemned by the rest of the hemisphere. The U.S. is the only country in the Americas not to have full diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. And the majority of other governments have said that unless Cuba is invited to the next Summit of the Americas they will not attend, and thus there will be no Summit. How embarrassing for us.
Clearly, it is in the interest of the U.S. to improve relations with Cuba, and yet, as we have orchestrated it, the first step must be a solution to the Gross case, i.e., that he be freed. But, as indicated above, there seems to be no effort on our part to bring that about.
The Cubans have hinted that in return for Gross, we should free the Cuban Five. But that is a non-starter. At least at this stage in the game, it would be unacceptable to the American public. Five for one would be seen as unbalanced, and, also, one of the five was convicted (however unfairly) of murder and is serving a double life sentence.
But while an exchange for the Five would not work – at least at this point – , a reduced variation might. One of the five has already been released on parole (though not allowed to return to Cuba) and another is due out shortly. Why not speed up his release by a few months and allow both to return to Cuba, in return for Gross’ release. And if we need to sweeten the pot a bit, we could remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the so called terrorist list. Cuba should long since have been removed anyway. There has not been any act on its part in years to keep it there and there is a growing popular demand for its removal. So let’s do the right thing and at the same time help bring about Gross’ release.
And these are by no means the only quids that might bring about his release. There are a number of others, if we would but turn our minds to it. One way, for example, would be for the State Department and USAID to suspend any further programs “to promote democracy in Cuba” that do not follow normal diplomatic protocol and have host country authorization. And we would lose almost nothing in the process, for these programs “to promote democracy” have achieved very little in terms of changing public opinion in Cuba. Indeed, as some have said, they have been almost as useless as TV Marti.
(This is not the place to take it up, but as we move toward normalization with Cuba, we must at some point take up and put the case of the Cuban Five in its proper legal and historical context. A separate IPR which points in that direction was published by the Center for International Policy in June of 2010 and is available from CIP. An updated version is now under production.)