Cuba Agrees to Let Spaniard Involved in Paya Death Serve Sentence Back Home

Over what was an especially painful weekend here in the United States, as the nation reeled over an elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a small bit of good news broke for one Spanish citizen, Angel Carromero, held in a Cuban prison since the summer. Carromero, a young conservative politician who traveled to Cuba last summer to bolster dissidents on the island and tragically ended up driving the car in which two Cuban dissidents - including Nobel Prize nominee Oswaldo Paya - lost their lives last summer, is heading home to Spain to serve the remainder of his prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter. How did a similiarly politically charged case such as Carromero's get defused in less that six months, while an American, Alan Gross, remains in a Cuban prison for more than 3 years now? Apparently, by way of bilateral negotiations. That, and what looked to me to be a small, tactical charm offensive undertaken by the Spanish government.

Carromero, who was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to 4 years in prison, had traveled to Cuba on a tourist visa with a Swedish politician. They had joined up to deliver 4,000 euros to Paya and to suggest the formation of a youth dissident group to Paya's daughter. They also offered to take Paya across the island in their rental car, but they never reached their destination. The car ran off the road and into a tree, and both Carromero and Modig, the only two to survive the accident, were taken in for questioning by Cuban authorities. Paya's family insists that Modig texted contacts in Sweden to say that their car was actually run off the road, but so far, no texts have been produced. Modig had little to offer Cuban authorities on the particulars of the accident. He said he was asleep at the time. But he did share the details of their plans to work with the dissidents while visiting Cuba, and the Cuban government released the videotaped Modig interview as if to demonstrate that it could have held the two on charges of subverting Cuba's internal order. Surely Modig realized that he was in a vulnerable position, having traveled on a tourist visa to work with dissidents in a country that would not look favorably on such activities. And, after telling all, Modig was allowed to return home to Sweden, where he's refused to offer any more comments on the accident. Perhaps Modig and Carromero will have more to say once Carromero is also safely outside of Cuba.

But for all the unanswered questions, Carromero's impending return to Spain offers a study in contrasts between the case of this Spanish prisoner and the United States' own Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who has remained in a Cuban prison for more than 3 years now. Gross visited Cuba five times in 2009, bringing in BGANs with which to establish 3 satellite networks that could be hidden from the Cuban government, thanks to a special SIM card only available to U.S. intelligence agencies. The U.S. maintains that Gross was merely trying to deliver internet access denied to most Cubans, while the Cuban government sees Gross's activities as one of many U.S. regime-change oriented programs operating in Cuba (without the consent of the Cuba government). Gross wrote in his trip reports that he was undertaking "risky" activities, but in a suit recently filed against the U.S. government and the contractor who hired him, the Gross family argues that USAID ill-prepared him for the risks. Gross's suit is believed to be an effort to pressure the U.S. government to negotiate with Cuba for his release.

It might be , as some of Cuba's critics suggest, that the Cuban government is just using Alan Gross as a bargaining chip to get five Cuban intelligence agents,hailed as counterterrorism heroes in Cuba, who are serving lengthy prison sentences and parole in the U.S. But, given that such a trade is a very heavy lift - the U.S. has repeatedly and categorically rejected the notion, it might also be reasonable to assume that the Cubans are nonetheless open to talking about the Gross case (and they say they are) and being convinced to give him a humanitarian release. If that were the case, the United States hasn't exactly fallen all over itself to negotiate, let alone to make a case to which the Cubans will listen. Insisting that Gross committed no crime, that he should be unconditionally released, and that the U.S. will not move the U.S.-Cuba cooperation agenda forward while he remains in jail, are the negotiating equivalent of saying, "It's my way or the highway."

But, Spain's Prime Minister Rajoy took a different route, and he's now gotten a positive result in less than six months time. Despite having taken to task his predecessor to task for being soft on Cuba, and specifically, for refusing to invite Cuban dissidents to the Spanish Embassy's annual National Day celebration in Havana each October, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy chose in the end not to reverse the policy, and failed to include Cuban dissidents in the event this past October. This surely doesn't signal an end to Madrid's commitment to human rights in Cuba, but it appears to have been a tactical decision aimed at getting Carromero released.

And how did the Spanish government react to the one day trial of Carromero?

Spain’s consul general in Havana attended the Carromero trial in October in Bayamo,  pronounced it “clean, open, and procedurally impeccable,” and said the accused was defended “very well.” (h/t The Cuban Triangle)

I'm presently waiting for the avalanche of criticism to fall on the Rajoy government for its appeasement of Havana, for having let itself be manipulated by the Castro government. But from where will that criticism come - Miami? Doubtful it will come from Madrid, where Carromero's return will be welcome news indeed.

Diplomacy is often a messy business. But it's been known to work from time to time.