Posts in Alan Gross
The worst managed issue between Cuba and the United States during Obama and Raul Castro’s first terms has been the detention of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in a Cuban military hospital since December 3, 2009. Shirking the first requirement of pragmatism, namely “facing the facts,” the Obama Administration has created its own fictional narrative that contradict even its own documents now available to the public.
Gross is an American international development expert who entered Cuba as a non registered foreign agent. As a USAID subcontractor, his mission was to create a wireless Internet satellite network based on Jewish community centers that would circumvent Cuban government detection. The USAID program was approved under section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act, a law committed to regime change in Cuba.
One would have to go back to John Quincy Adams, who served in the U.S. diplomatic service from the age of 17, to find a predecessor better pedigreed than John Kerry to lead the U.S. State Department. The son of a diplomat, Kerry is a war veteran, senior senator, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Few experiences have had greater influence on Kerry’s foreign policy views than his decades-long relationship with Vietnam, where Kerry served as a swift boat captain during the Vietnam War.
Kerry’s experience in Vietnam, where visceral ideological attitudes prevailed over rational analysis, prompted the future senator to advocate for a more realistic course for U.S. policy. A decorated veteran, John Kerry became a spokesman for veterans against the war. He learned that to promote U.S. values and interests requires awareness of the relative nature of power and the force of nationalism in the post-colonial world.
Mauricio Claver-Carone hosts a satellite radio program by the name “From Washington al Mundo” covering international affairs. But don’t expect any diplomacy there. The program is merely his platform from which to insult the American foreign policy establishment. For example, in his August 6 show, Claver targeted Vali Nasr, the Dean of the School of Advanced Studies of Johns Hopkins University and a leading expert on the Middle East, calling him “a useful idiot” or an agent of Teheran for not advocating a regime change policy and promoting negotiations with Iran. Mr. Claver and his guest Shahriar Etminani agreed that the nuclear issue is mere “noise”.
In another episode, Claver denounced Washington’s engagement with Beijing. On April 17, Claver hosted Thadeus McCotter or “the smartest member of Congress” by Claver's reckoning. The host and the guest shared their belief that as long as the Communist Party is in power, China remains the same. The United States should apply a Cold War policy to China because the war has never ended. According to Claver’s logic, the 40- year Nixon-Kissinger model of “unconditional” and “nonchalant” engagement with China is a case of “myopia”. It should be replaced by a “confrontational” approach. After Tiananmen Square, the United States should have applied to China a policy similar to our fifty year failure against Cuba: the embargo.
Meeting dissidents should not be a litmus test for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba (A response to the March 19 Washington Post Editorial).
As the visit of Benedict XVI draws nearer, Cuba's internal opposition is stepping up its activities in an effort to use his presence on the island as a sounding board. The Ladies in White, a group of mothers and wives of dissidents who were given long prison sentences in 2003, have eased up some since all of their relatives were released as a result of mediation by Cardinal Ortega. Now they are asking for a meeting with the Pope. In 2010, the Cardinal also managed to secure eight city blocks for them to hold their Sunday marches after mass at the Santa Rita Church in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. On Sunday March 18, the group, which has never managed to fill the ceded space, pushed further, and were detained by the government only to be released several hours later.
Don’t get me wrong. In the Cuba I dream of, without an American embargo and with representative democracy, opposition forces would have the right to demonstrate peacefully. But that is not the issue here. The gradual recovery of social spaces has been central to the Catholic Church's strategic adaptation to the post-revolutionary system. Unlike the political opposition calling for the government’s acceptance of a disorganized partisan pluralism that has no relevance on the street, the Church gradually recovers social spaces and then negotiates government recognition. The Cuban Bishops demanded the right to parade the Virgin of Charity through the towns of Cuba after parishes overflowed with worshipers, not before.
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.
May Day parade poster for the Cuban 5, Havana 2011
In a meeting with Hispanic journalists on September 12th, President Obama, referring to Bill Richardson’s trip to Cuba, said:
"Anything to get Mr. Gross free we will support".
Israel has shown the US how to do it.
If it can exchange Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinians, including 315 serving life sentences, why is it so hard for the Obama Administration to release five Cuban intelligence operatives, one imprisoned for life, in return for USAID subcontracted operative Alan Gross?
President Obama can make the first humanitarian gesture by letting Cuban operative Rene Gonzales serve his probation in Cuba, under the supervision of the US Interests Section--if that is required. President Castro can respond with a humanitarian gesture of giving probation to USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, under the supervision of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Part of a bilateral negotiated arrangement should be the release of the remaining four imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents.
Cuba can respond in like manner, sending four prisoners to the US. If there were any still held as prisoners of conscience, they deserve priority. Otherwise the four can be persons convicted for politically motivated acts of violence, the new cause of the Ladies in White. It is not too big a stretch as Cuba generally regards all anti-regime actions as being motivated if not funded by the US.
Cardinal Ortega could be asked to serve as the intermediary to assure both sides act in good faith.
Each country regards those imprisoned by the other as heroes and exponents of unimpeachable values. Similarly each country believes those it holds have been legitimately convicted and sentenced under its laws in the defense of national security and sovereignty.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has provided an example of what it means to be serious rather than rhetorical.
Should Obama be equally courageous, he can expect blatant hypocrisy in response.
Does including Cuba on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsoring nations serve the United States' national interest?
Lawrence B. Wilkerson and Arturo Lopez-Levy
According to a New York Times story , in his recent visit to Havana, former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson told Bruno Rodriguez, Cuban Minister of Foreign Relations, that by releasing Alan Gross, Cuba could begin a process of being removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Since both Richardson and the State Department have repeatedly declared that they have been working together on this issue, this is practically a confession that Cuba’s inclusion on the state sponsors of terrorism list is a sham.
The list of terrorist sponsoring nations should be a bargaining tool for dealing with, well, countries that engage in or sponsor terrorism. The misuse of an otherwise effective foreign policy tool must give pause to responsible members of Congress and the Washington intelligence community. First, it focuses efforts and resources in the wrong direction, taking eyes and dollars from where the real threats are. Second, it sends the wrong message to other countries, diminishing the impact of a warning to countries such as Iran and Syria and the groups they sponsor such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Third, it weakens the capacity of US allies like Israel , who are real targets of terrorist threats, to make a case for the isolation or monitoring of countries such as Iran whose presence on the list is justified.
Despite the tensions associated with the upcoming 2012 election campaign in the US, a dialogue between Washington and Havana, as proposed by the Cuban Foreign Relations Minister Bruno Rodriguez, is also in the interest of the Obama Administration, which has nothing to gain from more conflicts in its relationship with Cuba. President Barack Obama's positions favoring dialogue without preconditions, increasing people to people contacts, and reaching mutually beneficial agreements on bilateral issues were never predicated on sympathy for Fidel or Raul Castro, but rather on the conviction that diplomacy and contacts between societies are the best ways to promote US national interests.
By that standard, the balance of the first three years of the Obama administration's relationship with Cuba is positive. The increase in cultural, family, humanitarian and religious travel to Cuba accelerates current reforms in Cuba, improves the image of the US in the hemisphere, and strengthens domestic political trends favoring an engagement policy that is less dependent on the Miami right and more consistent with democratic values and US strategic and economic interests.
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.
Alan Gross will have his appeal to Cuba's Supreme Court on July 22nd. Will his conviction and 15 year sentence stand? And if it does, will Cuba's leaders feel pressure to step in to commute the sentence and release him?
A few weeks ago, I attended a talk offered by Bob Pastor, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, who traveled with the former president this spring on his second trip to the island. Pastor said in on-the-record comments - and I'm paraphrasing here from notes I took - that Carter left Cuba with the impression that Raul Castro wants to find a way to release Gross. Many will say (and I agree), wait a minute, if he really wants to release Gross (whether because he believes Gross doesn't belong in prison, should be allowed to go home to cancer-stricken family members, or whether he even just wants the political stumbling block to U.S. engagement removed), he could do so right now.
Nonetheless, if Raul Castro has either his own, his brother's, or other Cuban government hardliners' pride on his mind (and in Cuba, the US government program that sent Gross to the island is seen as an illegal foreign intervention aiming to bring down the Cuban government), what will convince him it's time to step in?
My ears perked up last week upon hearing that after six months of being detained in North Korea, American citizen Eddie Jun was freed last week on humanitarian grounds. Jun, a Los Angeles business man, was detained by North Korean authorities last November for alleged proselytizing while in North Korea on a business visa. As with Cuba, U.S-North Korea relations are colored by years of distrust and miscommunication. But unlike Cuba, North Korea is a nuclear power. That means that in world of finite U.S. diplomatic resources, North Korea demands our attention in a way Cuba never will. So despite, in indeed perhaps because of, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's proclivity for belligerent and provocative acts, the U.S. continues to rely on a mix of both sanctions and engagement in its dealing with Pyongyang.
Amid reports that flooding and an outbreak of disease have contributed to one of the worst food shortages in years, North Korea recently took the unusual step of asking for help from some of its most long-standing foes, including the United States. Against this backdrop, the detention (and subsequent release) of American Eddie Jun was seen as part of the North’s strategy of re-engaging the U.S. in a conversation about providing food assistance to North Korea. (U.S. assistance stopped in 2008 after North Korea expelled food aid monitors there to verify that aid was going to the neediest North Koreans, not being siphoned off for use by government officials.)
The debate about food aid to North Korea is a heated one, and has been since the international community’s first major humanitarian response to widespread famine in North Korea in the early 1990s that killed nearly one million people. The two sides of the debate go something like this- proponents argue the assistance is humanitarian, and to withhold it is a human rights violation, while those who oppose aid argue that reinstating it would amount to rewarding Pyongyang’s bad behavior, and would only serve to strengthen the North Korean regime. Sound vaguely familiar Cuba-philes?
At roughly this time last year the headline of a Reuters article proclaimed, “U.S-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point.” The article chronicled a number of prickly moments between Washington and Havana, but largely attributed the backslide to the arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross in late 2009 and the unfortunate death of Cuban prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo which occurred just a few months later.
Given President Obama’s remarks about Cuba to Univision last week, one might conclude U.S.-Cuba relations have reached a sort of second nadir. In response to a question about the reforms currently underway in Cuba, the president said,
“For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we've got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.”
While senior Obama Administration officials have been following those same talking points for months, (see Cuba Central’s helpful chronology here), to hear them again, precisely as Cuba begins to implement some of the wide-ranging policy reforms recently endorsed by its political leadership, is a troubling signal of where this Administration is on Cuba policy. Despite the past year being one in which Cuba began an historic process of reform and agreed to a major prisoner release brokered by the Cuban Catholic Church, Obama’s comments have the ring of an all-too-familiar refrain that is increasingly incompatible with the facts on the ground in Cuba.
U.S.-Cuba policy is important to Senator Kerry and he wants us to get it right. That was the message he sent last Friday when he announced he is freezing funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Cuba democracy promotion programs until a complete review of the programs is completed
Kerry’s announcement came after USAID provided a spending plan (h/t Cuban Triangle) for the $20 million it recieved for Cuba democracy promotion programs in the FY2010 federal budget. For those readers who are not avid followers of the federal budget process, the U.S. Congress is currently wrangling over the FY2011 budget, in which, yes, the Administration requested another $20 million for USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion programs.
If it sounds like Kerry is singing a familiar tune, it’s because this isn’t the first time he’s tried to call attention to this deeply flawed program that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $150 million. Four months after American USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for his work on a USAID sub-contract, Kerry placed a hold on the dispersal of USAID Cuba democracy promotion funds to allow the State Department to conduct a review of the program.
As Kerry’s spokesman, Fred Jones said at the time, “We all want democratic change in Cuba,” Jones continued. “The question is whether American taxpayers are getting progress towards that goal.”
Unfortunately, it seems the most that came of that review was a modest attempt to broaden and de-politicize the program’s roster of recipients to include “marginalized communities” such as those living in rural areas, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as to promote grass-roots economic development. Expanding the program to encompass more traditional USAID priorities such as economic development was a good move, but it didn’t address the more fundamental concerns with the program- that it operates without the consent of the host government and under Cuban law, put Americans and Cubans involved with the program at risk.
In reviewing the transcript of former President Carter’s press conference in Havana on Wednesday, he says many things we’ve all heard before: End the embargo. Remove Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Restore basic freedoms in Cuba. What's refreshing though is that these comments emanate from one individual, who, as a former U.S President and recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, knows more than a bit about the intersection of foreign policy making and human rights.
Consistency is something often lacking in discussions about U.S.-Cuba policy, such that Carter's two-pronged message, calling on both the U.S. and Cuba to take affirmative steps to improve relations, carried with it the exotic flavor of equity. In calling for the repeal of the U.S. embargo and the end of restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Cuba for Americans and Cubans, Carter pointed out the hypocrisy of a U.S. policy that curtails the rights of its own citizens under the guise of punishing a rights-abusing regime.
“I believe we should immediately eliminate the trade embargo that the United States has imposed on the people of Cuba and also allow travel without any kind of restriction from the U.S. to Cuba and vice-versa…”
One does not have to agree with everything the former President said to appreciate the significance of a distinguished American statesman publicly calling for an end to the U.S. embargo and decrying Cuba’s lack of freedoms in a single breath.
Photo: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter shakes the hands of eager schoolchildren during his historic trip to Cuba. (May 2002).
When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, 86, touches down in Havana today he will confront a situation not totally unlike his last international diplomatic outing. Replace nuclear weapons with decades of distrust, add in a failing state–run economy and an American in a communist prison, and you have the backdrop against which the thirty-ninth President of the United States enters Cuba for a brief, but potentially powerful three-day visit.
Nine years ago when Carter first visited Cuba, it marked the first time an American president had set foot on the island since Fidel Castro took power. The visit was marked by a public address, broadcast over Cuban radio (and delivered in Spanish), in which President Carter called for the end of the U.S. embargo and lauded the Cuban pro-democracy initiative, the Varela Project.
Since then, and as most Cuba watchers know, significant changes have come to Cuba with many more still on the horizon. Under President Raul Castro’s watch, Cuba has essentially sworn off the state-led economy as it has precariously existed in Cuba since Fidel Castro took power. The government has pledged to lay off approximately 500,000 state workers, and has granted 171,000 private employment licenses. Next month’s Communist Party Congress, the first to be convened in 14 years, will focus on “the fundamental decisions on updating the Cuban economic model,” and will shed light on how the government plans to reconcile market-oriented reforms with political and social norms of Cuba's communist system.
An American contractor could spend 15 years in a Cuban prison because of work he undertook at the behest of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). If this tragic episode does not fundamentally transform the nature of U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba, I shudder to think what it may take.
The saga that Alan Gross and his family have been living for the past 15 months was an incredibly unfortunate accident waiting to happen. USAID knows its back door tactics place American and Cuban participants in direct violation of Cuban law. In dealing with Cuba, a country that views these programs as part of a larger strategy of regime change (with good reason), and operates one of the most formidable intelligence services in the world, it is no wonder, however regrettable, that Havana decided to make an example out of Alan Gross.
It figures that just as I get ready to take an extended leave for the next two months (during which I'll be unable to blog here as much as I'd like), U.S.-Cuban affairs would get to their most interesting - and critical - point in some time.
In recent days we've learned that April's Communist Party Congress in Cuba may not just clarify and embrace the ongoing economic overhaul, but now it will include election of new leadership - which offers the prospect that Fidel Castro will step down as party head, Raul Castro will presumably take his place, and someone else will step into the number 2 spot. Any readers want to take a gander at that one in the comments section?
And then there's what fate awaits Alan Gross, the American contractor the Wall Street Journal editorial board today suggests went on trial in Cuba for "bringing computer equipment to the island to help Cuban Jews communicate with the disapora"? It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is, even, and especially perhaps, for the media to ignore the parts of reality it cares to. Gross was allegedly delivering highly advanced and unregulated satellite communications equipment (added emphasis is mine) on behalf of a foreign, and let's face it, hostile, power. That's a big difference, particularly when we know that droves of American Jews visit the island every year to connect and make generous donations, resulting in community amenities like a computer lab.
The WSJ may in fact be absolutely right that the Cuban government is "terrified of the internet," but questioning the motives behind the application of a law in another country doesn't give you the right to expect that law to be disregarded because you believe your motives to be on a higher order.
The trial in Cuba against USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, which will begin on March 4, presents an opportunity for the Cuban government to both demonstrate the legitimate basis for nationalist defense against U.S. interventionist policy and its good will towards the millions of potential American travelers to Cuba.
By the end of the trial, it should be clear that U.S. travelers to Cuba have nothing to fear if they keep a healthy distance from regime change programs and that Washington and Havana would both gain from dismantling hostile attitudes.
The trial serves three Cuban government purposes:
Alan Gross, a Maryland-based USAID subcontractor detained in Cuba in December 2009, is finally about to get his day - or days - in court on March 4th. His family, and U.S. consular officials will be allowed to attend the trial.
As CBS Havana Bureau Chief Portia Siegelbaum reports, there may be a surprise witness in the room too. Finally, a member of the Jewish community has stepped forward to say he did encounter Alan Gross, several times. But William Miller, former Vice President of the the Templo Beth Shalom in Vedado, says Gross's activities "had absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish community," as State Department officials have repeatedly insisted. Though Miller wouldn't elaborate on exactly what role he'll play in Gross's trial, he revealed he'll be "a part of it." And, then he added this, clear as mud:
"The solution to the problem is coming . . . better for the government to explain everything."
It's hard to imagine Miller would utter one word the government didn't want revealed in such a sensitive case. For those of us who saw this whole saga as an unfortunate dragging of one man and his family into a tortured diplomatic relationship, Miller's comments about a "solution" offer hope that Gross could soon return to his family.
The Cuban government has announced a new phase of the Alan Gross saga. According to the official note in Cuban newspaper Granma, prosecutors will seek a 20 year sentence against Gross under the Cuban sovereignty defense law. This law was passed by the Cuban National Assembly in 1999 as a nationalist antidote against the American interventionist regime change programs promoted under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
The fact that Mr. Gross will finally have his day in Court is positive. It brings his situation closer to international standards regarding the human right to legal counsel and a fair and impartial trial. The Cuban government will have the chance to present Gross’ alleged violations of Cuban laws and expose the ways in which the USAID Cuba program differs from the legal and good practices of international development assistance. These factors might create conditions for a political solution of his case negotiated by Havana and Washington.
A USAID sub-contractor, an American interested in social development, Alan Gross spent more than a year behind bars in Havana without formal charges. His family has paid a major emotional and financial toll for his absence. His daughter, Shira, has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy without having her father by her side. His wife Judith, his family, and his congregation all bemoan his absence.
Gross’s imprisonment is the direct result of the design flaws in USAID’s Cuba programs that the Obama Administration inherited from its predecessor. The agency is conducting programs on the island that place Cubans at risk of severe prison sentences without informing them of the risk they take.
Earlier this week, we noted that Cuban prosecutors plan to finally try an American citizen (and USAID subcontractor) held in Cuba during what appears to have been an exhaustive 14 month investigation for crimes against "the independence or territorial integrity of the State." They plan to seek a 20 year prison sentence.
Right on the heels of that announcement, someone slipped Cuba's most celebrated independent blogger Yoani Sanchez - "Viva el Cubaleaks!" writes Sanchez - a copy of a Cuban Ministry of the Interior briefing describing how the United States's war against Cuba has moved into cyberspace. In this video, the MINIT briefer describes how, since at least 2008 (and, notably, even today under the Obama administration) the United States has actively sought to place satellite communications networks in Cuba free from Cuban government control and recruit Cubans to maintain them. And, right on the heels of that leaked video being posted by Yoani on her blog, Yoani now reports that the Cuban government has ceased blocking access to her blog from the island.
That's a lot of drama and intrigue for one week, but chances are this is only the beginning. As Phil Peters notes in his excellent analysis of the MINIT video, this video looks less like a leak and more like the Cuban government's opening statement in the upcoming trial of Alan Gross. (All the more ironic that the video was leaked to Yoani Sanchez, one of the subjects treated in the video and a blogger the Cuban government considers to be "manufactured" by the U.S. and allies in Europe.) For those who want to skip the video, and even the transcription at Cafe Fuerte, or the translation available at Translating Cuba, and just get a synopsis of the main messages in the video, then I recommend you hop over to The Cuban Triangle here and here. Here's a taste of that analysis:
If you read the transcript, what Cuban government messages can you derive? I think they are these:
- To Latin American governments and publics, and beyond: “Obama is no different than Bush; same economic sanctions against Cuba, same attempts to bring down our Revolution.”
- To friendly governments: “You might want to check what USAID is up to in your country.”
- To international public opinion: “We have young people who are smart, tech-savvy, and as committed as any historico to defending Cuba.”
To USAID and its contractors and President Obama: “We’ve got your number."
The fourth round of U.S.-Cuban migration talks wrapped up in Havana this week, with just two newsworthy tidbits. The Cuban government allowed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to visit with the American USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, who has been detained in Cuba for more than one year now without charges, and, Jacobson and the American delegation visited with Cuban dissidents, in spite of the Cuban government's request that they not do so. The latter evoked an angry response from Cuba's foreign ministry, which described the U.S. delegation's visit as a "flagrant violation of the international norms and principles" under which the two countries should operate (my translation below):
"This act confirms once again that there's no change in the U.S. policy of subversion and interference in Cuban internal affairs, and that its priority continues to be to encourage internal counterrevolution and promote destabalizing activities, while it intensifies the embargo and the persecution of Cuban financial and comercial transactions around the world."
When this same thing happened last year, right down to the immediate and angry "we asked you not to" response from Cuba, I concluded it was all essentially a show; Cuba asks the U.S. not to use the occasion of diplomatic talks to visit (and, as they see it, elevate) internal critics, the U.S. delegation went ahead anyway, and Cuba threw a fit on principle. I still believe that to be the case, but I don't see the Cuban concerns, particularly as expressed this year, as cosmetic. What they are essentially saying is, 'you Americans come here (and leave here) saying how willing you are to cooperate with us, but out of the other side of your mouth, while you're still standing on Cuban soil, you make only gestures of disrespect, and oh by the way, in just this last year you've been trying to strangle us even harder than before - what gives?'
It might be a bit of Kabuki theater, but I find myself wondering if the Cuban side has decided to put up with these visits not because they don't really care (what impact do they truly have?) but because that's the price they must pay for continued talks. While we haven't seen a big agreement signing come out of these talks, they are an important way to raise concerns and build trust. And with big changes underway in Cuba, and the potential for President Obama to win a second and (presumably) less politically penned-in second term, I doubt either side wants to jeopardize this channel. Six, eight years ago, talks such as these could so easily be blown up by two very trigger happy sides.
"It's been said that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
No case illustrates this suffering more than that of Alan Gross, a Maryland resident and USAID subcontractor who was working to connect the Cuban Jewish community to the Internet and was detained by Cuban authorities one year ago. Campaigning for his release these many months, his wife, Judy Gross, fears that her husband has become a "pawn" in the half-century Cold War between the United States and Cuba."
That's an excerpt from a commentary that fellow THN contributor Arturo Lopez-Levy and I published in today's The Baltimore Sun. The piece examines not just Alan Gross's case, but the history of the controversial USAID program for which he was working, and other major flaws in the program that impact not just US contractors but the Cuban "beneficiaries" too. Arturo, who has deep roots Cuba's Jewish community, is deeply frustrated over what he sees as the US government's failure to obtain the informed consent of Cubans on the ground. To read the whole piece, click here.
We're pleased that The Baltimore Sun wanted to dig a little deeper into complex and sensitive issues such as this one, which, in its myopic editorial of December 7, The Washington Post utterly failed to do. While we agree with the Post that it is long past time for the Cuban government to give Gross a fair hearing or let him return home to his family, this tragedy didn't transpire in a vacuum. U.S. policy and the Obama administration itself, which never conducted the policy review Secretary Clinton promised Senator Richard Lugar nearly two years ago at her confirmation, bears crucial responsibility too for landing Mr. Gross in his current predicament.
Judy Gross, who in a letter to The Miami Herald called on Presidents Obama and Castro to improve the tortured relationship of which she considers her husband a victim, also talked to The Forward recently. Here's a snippet from the Jewish Daily Forward website:
I wish I could commend the Washington Post Editorial Board for shining a light on the plight of Bethesda-based Alan Gross, who has spent a year in a Cuban jail cell without charges. Truly, I do. Because on this I am sure most everyone can easily agree: it is long past time for Cuban authorities to give Mr. Gross his day in court or else set him free.
But Monday's editorial, "Cuba's Jewish Hostage," crossed a line when when it irresponsibly led readers to believe that Gross is in prison in Cuba because he's Jewish, and because he was working with the Jewish community.
"Raul Castro's attempt to win foreign favor and investment for Cuba's moribund economy took a particularly cynical turn on Sunday, when the dictator celebrated Hanukkah with Havana's tiny Jewish community. Broadcast on state television, the event was designed to prove that the regime doesn't share the anti-Semitism of allies such as Iran and Venezuela. There was just one problem: No mention was made of Alan P. Gross, an American from Potomac who passed the holiday in a Cuban military facility, where he has been imprisoned for a year without trial because he tried to help Cuba's Jews."
If we've explained it once here at THN, we've explained it a thousand times (as have countless other Cuba analysts): Alan Gross most likely ran afoul of Cuban authorities by traveling to Cuba on a tourist visa (when he was not a tourist) to complete a mission directed and funded by the United States Government. Whether we find its implementation draconion or not, Cuba has a law against that kind of thing (so do we, by the way, it's called the Foreign Agent Registration Act), and the words "Jews of Cuba" don't appear anywhere in it.
An unflinching look at what happened here should lead The Washington Post and other interested media to question whether the State Department bears some responsibility for sending private Americans like Alan Gross into a country to break its laws.
It's also worth asking whether the U.S. government committed a huge blunder by expanding USAID's Cuban democracy program efforts previously focused on declared political dissidents to nonpolitical groups like Cuba's Jews, and thus forcing them into a political battle for which they never asked.
Maybe the next Washington Post editorial will start raising some of these tough questions.
Today marks one year since a USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross of Bethesda, MD, allegedly helping the Cuban Jewish community connect via internet to the Jewish community outside of Cuba, was taken into Cuban custody at the conclusion of his fifth such trip to the island. Cuban authorities maintain that he broke Cuban laws, and have even suggested in a couple of instances that he was a spy. U.S. authorities, meanwhile, insist that Gross did nothing wrong, broke no laws, and that Gross's work would not have been a problem in other countries around the world. Alan Gross's wife considers her husband a political pawn, and believes both the U.S. and Cuba could take steps to improve relations and in the process, bring her husband home.
I'm with Judy Gross on this. If Alan Gross violated Cuban laws, he should know and face the charges against him in a fair and open trial.
Unfortunately, Cuba's failure to move the case along has merely enabled Washington's own immobility. Simply demanding his release, as the State Department again did once again yesterday, clearly isn't getting anywhere. It would be a lot easier to sit back and fold our arms ("We don't negotiate with hostage takers!") if our own government hadn't played a starring role in Gross's predicament in the first place. Beyond the intrepid oversight efforts of Senator John Kerry and Congressman Howard Berman (whose committees have jurisdiction over the program) there's been zero effort - beyond a cursory "at your own risk" warning to future USAID Cuba program contractors - from the U.S. side to take responsibility for what happened here. And in that vacuum, Tracey Eaton reports, people like former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, continue to offer platitudes like this one:
Yesterday's Miami Herald featured a plea from Judy Gross, wife of the American USAID subcontractor who has been held in Cuba for 11 months (under investigation and without any formal charges filed yet), to Presidents Obama and Castro to "be different than your predecessors, change the tide of bilateral relations."
Who doesn't love Al Kamen's "In the Loop" column in The Washington Post? His scoop is always well researched and substantive, while bringing a little bit of much-needed levity to the news about town. So naturally I chuckled when i read today's bit on Cuba, which began thus:
"He may be the last one to figure it out, but Fidel Castro's recent observation to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic that the Cuban economic model "doesn't even work for us anymore'' was nonetheless stunning."
But while Al Kamen keeps us in the loop on so many matters, he was a bit off the mark in the case of Alan Gross, the American who traveled to Cuba on a USAID sub-contract, and, as Kamen writes, remains "imprisoned in Cuba for the crime of distributing cellphones and laptops in Cuba's tiny Jewish community."
To better understand the circumstances around Mr. Gross's plight (he's been in prison since last December), Kamen need have looked no further than the September 3rd edition of the venerable Jewish weekly The Forward (or visit its sister publication, The Daily Forward). In it, Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuban Jew who immigrated to the United States via Israel several years ago but still maintains close contacts with Cuba's Jewish community, wrote:
"Gross was not arrested because he is Jewish, nor is it likely that he was imprisoned because of his efforts to help Cuba’s Jewish community with communications technology. Rather, Gross appears to be a victim of failed American policy toward Cuba and a paranoid Cuban government that is holding him without trial.