The High Holidays and Alan Gross: Is there a Jewish Road Out?


The High Holidays are the expression of the supreme Jewish belief in reconciliation and every individual’s capacity to recognize his or her mistakes and change for the better. The Cuban government should view Alan Gross’ recent statement as expressing repentance for his unconscious participation in American government sponsored regime change policies that violated Cuban sovereignty. Mr. Gross, an American Jew from Maryland, interested in civil society development was arrested in Dec. 3, 2009 by the Cuban authorities. He had gone to Cuba five times as a subcontractor of Development Alternatives Inc (DAI), a private company serving contracts awarded by the Bush Administration under the Cuba program of USAID.

The Cuba program of USAID is not a typical one. It is based on section 109 of the Helms Burton Act, legislation passed by US Congress in 1996 with the declared purpose of overthrowing the current government in Havana. The law codified all the sanctions approved against Cuba from 1959 to 1996 and it is considered by the overwhelming majority of the international community and most Cuban civil society as a violation of international law and an affront to Cuban sovereignty. The USAID programs designed under the Bush Administration are part of a regime change strategy that blocks Americans from travelling freely to Cuba while paying for a selected group of contractors to semi-covertly go to the island and support activities that seek to advance the agenda of Cuban right wing émigrés' property claims and political revenge contained in section 205 and 206 of the Helms-Burton Act.

Last July, the Cuban Supreme Court ratified Mr. Gross’ sentence to fifteen years in jail by a lower court.

To make things worse, three days before the verdict, USAID returned to implementing its agenda after a year-long pause caused by Senators Kerry and Leahy.  One need not be a great historian to recall the US government's track record of unabashed attempts to overthrow the Cuban government over the last fifty years. Everything from cooperation with the mafia to kill Fidel Castro to government sponsored Miami based terrorist activities against Cuban civilians has been contemplated or executed.

In fact, one doesn’t need to be a historian at all to read last year’s declarations of former undersecretary of State for hemispheric Affairs Roger Noriega saying that the purpose of the programs designed under the Bush Administration were to provoke “change” through “chaos" and "instability” in Cuba.  

By now, the Cuban government has achieved a clear dividend with Gross’ trial and sentence. Everyone is warned that whoever engages in USAID programs under the Helms-Burton Act will be treated in Cuba as a spy in enemy territory. Unfortunately the US government did not warn Alan Gross of the risks he was facing. His wife Judy Gross told Reuters, “If Alan thought something was going to happen to him in Cuba, he would not have done this. I feel he was not clearly told the risks”. Recently, in his court testimony, released by his US lawyer, Mr. Gross said that he was a “trusting fool”, adding that he was “duped. And my family and I have paid for this”.

Last week, Ricardo Alarcon, the speaker of the Cuban National Assembly referred to Mr. Gross as a “victim” of US policy towards Cuba. Alarcon explained that Gross was “used”. This recognition by the Cuban authorities is positive. Shouldn’t Cuba have a humanitarian gesture towards the American people and the Gross family? Are policymakers in Havana assessing the risks of a potential complication of Alan Gross’ health? Does the Cuban government have a plan B to deal with this and other issues in case the Republican Party wins the 2012 elections turning a difficult problem into an intractable one?

Let’s hope that the US government helps to solve the Gross imprisonment by assuming its responsibility for the design flaws and violations of Cuban sovereignty embedded in the USAID programs and the Helms-Burton law. Repeating that Alan Gross is a “hostage” and his imprisonment is the main obstacle to improve U.S. and Cuban relations does not make it true. Worse, it will not make him free. What about the Helms-Burton law and the legacy of aggressiveness and bad faith the Bush Administration left behind? The United States should treat this issue with the dignity and maturity of a democratic superpower. This is a conflict of fifty years in which there have been prisoners and even dead and wounded, on both sides.

One thing that can help Mr. Gross is some public discussion in Washington about the semi-covert nature of the USAID program under which the Marylander went to Cuba. Is it right to involve Cuban civil society groups in US government funded programs without receiving their informed consent? Was the Bush Administration acting properly when it designed those programs with the goal expressed by its undersecretary for Hemispheric Affairs Roger Noriega of creating “chaos” and “instability” in Cuba? Is the White House ready to reciprocate a Cuban humanitarian gesture with one of its own in relation to the five Cuban agents arrested in Florida who didn’t receive- according to Amnesty International and the United Nations Group on Arbitrary Detentions – a fair trial? Why not reopen Gerardo Hernandez’s case and give him a trial outside Southern Florida? Why not clean the mess Bush left behind by pushing the “reset” button with Cuba as Secretary Clinton did with Russia?

Governments normally do not apologize. That said, from time to time leaders can take a religious message of reconciliation seriously. The Days of Awe are redemption opportunities. God does not forgive people who caused harm to others unless they have expressed regrets and obtain forgiveness from the grieved party. Where attempts at honest rectification are made, the grieved ones should open their heart and not behave cruelly. The Cuban and US governments must welcome the remorse of the penitents, try to understand their predicament, and give themselves the opportunity to reconcile. As Mrs. Gross implored, it is time to “turn the page on old hostilities”.  

Dawn Gable edited this article.