Lessons of a U.S.-Russian Spy Swap

DeWayne Wickham, columnist for USA Today, thinks he knows how to get Alan Gross out of jail in Cuba.  Gross has been in jail for more than a year and a half, and was convicted in the spring of violating Cuba's sovereignity by distributing sophisticated telecommunications equipment (B-GANs), which are illegal without a permit in Cuba, and especially illegal if bought and paid for under a U.S. law specifically targeting the Cuban government. 

In this week's column for USA Today, Wickham suggests trading the Cuban Five, five Cuban agents who infiltrated Cuban exile organizations working to destabilize the island nation in the 1990s.  All of the Five received long sentences, and one was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and received a life sentence (two, actually), for what the prosecution alleged was his role in the shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996.  The defense argued he had no role in the shootdown. (The shootdown came after Brothers to the Rescue repeatedly flew into Cuban airspace, overflying the island, including its capital, Havana, several times, dropping leaflets in the months leading up to the shootdown, though the U.S. maintains that the planes did not enter Cuban airspace on that day.)

Whatever you think of the crimes committed by the Five or by Alan Gross - and many will think they are not comparable - our government has a moral obligation to do everything it can to get Americans out of jail in foreign countries, especially if they were essentially working for the U.S. government. 

Wickham reminds us that just last year the Obama administration wasted no time in getting 4 Russians who worked for the U.S. and Britain released from prison in exchange for 10 Russian spies rounded up in the U.S.:

"When the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies last year, this country quickly traded them for four ailing men held by Russia and accused of being espionage agents for the United States and Britain.

It took just more than a week for the U.S. government to cut the deal that sent the Russian agents, who had been in this country for more than a decade, to Moscow. After a brief appearance in a federal courtroom to plead guilty to a single charge of conspiring "to act as an agent of a foreign country" the Russian spooks were whisked from the country . . .

Wickham is right that some hard-line exiles would never forgive the administration were it to make such a trade.  Last year a group of Cuban American members of Congress got whipped up over rumors of just such a trade, which the State Department promptly and categorically dismissed.  (But the ranking member of that group, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also got whipped up this summer about a photo contest sponsored by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana - so it really doesn't take much). 

But the hardliners were never with Obama to begin with, preferring to keep Cuba policy stuck in the Cold War, which, though we never win, we never give in.  Still, never giving ground has its drawbacks.  Alan Gross's entire family has suffered tremendously throughout this ordeal, and not solely because the Cuban government locked him up.  As Wickam points out:

. . . Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Gross told an appeals court he had been a "trusting fool" and didn't know his actions violated Cuban law, according to a transcript released recently by his American lawyer.

Maybe he didn't, but the State Department must have. By engaging the company that hired Gross to help implement its "Cuba democracy program," the diplomats in Foggy Bottom surely knew the risks they were running in privatizing a portion of their efforts to bring regime change to that island nation. They had to have known that if caught, Gross would be treated like a spy . . ."

I hadn't thought a trade like this would be necessary, fitting or politically feasible.  But Wickam has changed my mind on at least two out of three.  While I don't see an all-at-once trade in the cards like in the Russian case, the U.S. would be wise to send some sort of signal to Havana if we truly want to do what it takes to get Gross out of jail and back home with his family.