Rene Gonzalez Gets a Yes While Alan Gross Waits - Can Pope Benedict Help?
One might expect that a terrible coincidence such as an American prisoner in Cuba and a paroled Cuban prisoner in the U.S. each desperately seeking permission to visit beloved relatives dying of cancer in their home countries might finally move both governments to do the right thing and send each man home. But so far, both governments have dug in their heels needlessly regarding the prisoners in their own custody, while at the same time, insisting that clemency should be shown towards their own citizens held in the other country.
So what happens now that a federal judge in Miami has approved Rene Gonzalez’s petition for a two week visit to his brother in Cuba? The judge gave her permission so long as Gonzalez obtains the necessary license from the U.S. government, provides his itinerary, keeps up with his parole officer while in Cuba, and returns when his two weeks are up. Lucky for Gonzalez that Mr. Obama delivered on his campaign promise to Cuban Americans back in 2009: anyone can visit close family in Cuba under ‘general license’ authority, so he doesn’t have to ask for further permission. This is good news for Gonzalez and his brother.
But will it mean good news for Alan Gross, in exchange? Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue this can be an ‘exchange’ of humanitarian gestures by the two governments, since Obama’s Justice Department opposed Gonzalez’s deathbed visit to his brother. These kinds of equities – or inequities – weigh heavily in Havana. When former governor Bill Richardson visited Cuba last August and suggested a swap of Gonzalez for Gross, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon scoffed at the idea – Gonzalez was finishing his term, having served more than a dozen years in prison, whereas Gross had only just begun his sentence of 15 years. And, from the Cuban government’s perspective, Gonzalez was merely trying to protect Cuba, whereas Gross’s work to establish untraceable Wi-Fi networks on the island was funded under a statute calling for regime change in Cuba. (U.S. officials naturally have a different view: they cite national security concerns about Gonzalez, who was an unregistered agent of the Cuban government in the U.S., and they view Gross’s work as purely humanitarian in nature. )
Another reason why Cuba is less likely to grant Mr. Gross a deathbed visit to his mother is that granting a temporary release to Gross is tantamount to simply commuting his sentence. Why would he return to Cuba once reaching the U.S.? Gonzalez is likely return to the U.S. out of a sense of solidarity with the rest of the Cuban Five; if he fails to meet the conditions set out by the judge that granted his motion in the first place, that could impact decisions made on future motions filed by the rest of them. But Gross has nothing else at stake in Cuba, and if the Cuban government is bent on keeping him as a chip for the right humanitarian bargain to come along (say one that includes more of the Five), then granting his deathbed visit request would take away that imagined leverage.
But it’s a mistake to think that Mr. Gross offers any leverage to Cuba. Early on, keeping him drove home to those U.S. lawmakers who were listening that Cuba would no longer tolerate foreign intervention in its internal affairs. But the Obama administration has remained firm not only on the Cuban Five but also on the controversial USAID program for which Gross worked. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just reiterated in testimony before Congress that the U.S. will not make a deal with Cuba to secure Gross's release. (One wonders if there is an flexibility in what they consider a 'deal'?) Had Cuba responded favorably to the offer that Richardson made (though Cuba insisted that Richardson couldn’t make a real offer if didn’t represent the U.S. government) to swap Gonzalez for Gross, it could have at least triumphantly brought Gonzalez home to a hero’s welcome, on more of its own terms, when the Gonzalez brothers would have had months together.
But, at least, lucky for the Gonzalez brothers, a U.S. court showed mercy where the Obama administration did not. As for Mr. Gross, his family has appealed to Raul Castro directly. And while the equities, from the Cuban government’s perspective, don’t line up, one nonetheless hopes Castro hears the plea and responds. For however tipped the political scales might be, there’s nothing political about allowing a mother to see her son one last time.
Cuban leaders may not wish to be seen responding to the U.S. government. But if they want to return Gross while the humanitarian stakes are indeed as high as they were for Rene Gonzalez, they could release him as a gesture to Pope Benedict XVI, who will be visiting the island this week. It would certainly help if the U.S. were to change its position on Gonzalez returning to serve out the remainder of his supervised release. It shouldn't be hard to argue that now that Gonzalez has been allowed to return to Cuba (and possibly receive new instructions from Cuban intelligence, so the argument went), U.S. national security would now be better served for him to remain there.
In Cuba this week, all eyes will be on the Pope; no one would notice Gross’s departure. In the U.S., where expectations for this Pope’s visit are unrealistically high, winning Gross’s release would be a significant achievement.