Carter in Cuba: The Long Road to Freeing a U.S. Prisoner – and Thawing U.S.-Cuba Relations

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Question: If former U.S. President Jimmy Carter didn’t go to Cuba this week to win the freedom of jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross, what was he there for? Answer: To win the freedom of jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross – but down the road. And that road could be a long one.

Gross, 61, a Maryland lawyer, was arrested in Cuba in December 2009 for illegally bringing communications equipment to the Jewish community there as part of a USAID-backed program to promote democracy. The Obama Administration insists Gross was only handing out cell phones and computers; but Cuban authorities say Gross was trying to subvert the island’s communist government. Earlier this month he was tried in Havana, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison.

Gross’ case is a new focal point of U.S.-Cuba relations, or the lack of them, not just the matter of his guilt or innocence but the broader issue of whether or not the neighboring nations can ever substantively engage one another beyond their Cold War time warp. A big obstacle to winning Gross’ release, for example, is the fact that five Cubans, convicted in 2001, are currently serving lengthy prison terms in the U.S. for spying (which prosecutors said led to Cuba’s air force in 1996 shooting down two small planes, piloted by Cuban-Americans, searching for Cubans fleeing the island on rafts). Cuba insists the men, who also violated foreign-agent registration laws, were in Florida only to monitor violent anti-Castro plots inside the Cuban exile community. But if the U.S. can keep them locked up, Havana reasons, then Cuba can hold Gross – who was in Cuba without the necessary visa – for what it considers, fairly or not, a similarly serious breach of its own sovereignty.

Carter – who during his 1977-81 administration came the closest of any U.S. President to re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba since they were severed in 1961 – hopes to have begun breaking that logjam this week with his three-day visit to Cuban President Raúl Castro and Raúl’s older, ailing brother, former President Fidel Castro, 84. “I think [Gross] should be released because he is innocent of any serious crime,” Carter said before leaving Havana on Wednesday. At the same time, he said he hoped that “in the near future” the five Cubans will be freed because their trials were held under “doubtful circumstances” in the anti-Castro hothouse of Miami.

But it’s even more doubtful that President Obama will ever release the five, who have exhausted their legal appeals in the U.S. courts, especially now that hard-line anti-Castro-ites like Republican U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, hold sway in Congress. Which means the 86-year-old Carter has to find other ways to convince Raúl Castro not only that Gross, whom Carter visited and described as being “in good spirits,” should be freed for humanitarian reasons – both Gross’ mother and daughter are battling cancer in the U.S. – but that programs like the USAID effort Gross was involved in are meant as pro-civil society exchanges, not anti-communist espionage.

Just as important, he has to convince both Washington and Havana that each side is making the requisite gestures for broader rapprochement. Obama, for example, has re-opened dialogue on issues like Cuban immigration to the U.S. and recently relaxed restrictions on U.S. travel and remittances to Cuba. Meanwhile, Raúl Castro – who last week released the last of 75 dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro in 2003, and who last year announced dramatic quasi-market reforms for Cuba’s limping socialist economy – had hoped Obama would throw his support behind a bilateral effort in Congress to lift the entire ban on U.S. travel to Cuba, if not the entire 49-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island. Still, Obama told the Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer this month that he “hasn’t seen as much follow-through” from Havana as he’d like on democratization.

Before departing Cuba, Carter tried to make both sides reconsider their well-worn stances and the current diplomatic game of the-ball’s-in-your-court. “We should immediately lift the embargo,” Carter argued. “I believe it impedes rather than assists in seeing further reforms made” in Cuba. On the other hand, Carter, who earlier in the day met with prominent Cuban dissidents, called for “complete freedom for all Cuban people, for speech and assembly, for travel.” Says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, “Carter went to Cuba to stand up for human rights in, and engagement with, Cuba. He wants Obama to see that you can do both.” And he wants Raúl Castro, who next month will preside over the first Cuban Communist Party Congress in 14 years, to see that Havana can loosen its grip on its 11 million people and still stand up to Washington.

It’s unclear where all that leaves Gross (or the “Cuban Five,” for that matter). It’s also unclear what the Obama Administration may have authorized Carter to offer Raúl Castro, if anything, to ease Gross’ eventual release, such as changes in policies like the USAID program. For his part, Raúl Castro said, “I believe [Carter’s] visit was as good as he wanted it to be. Now judge for yourselves.” What is clear is that Gross did not leave Cuba with Carter, as many in the U.S. had hoped. But Carter may have at least begun paving the road out of Gross’ prison cell – and out of the U.S.-Cuba time warp. We’ll have to judge for ourselves in the months ahead.