Corrected Aug. 10 2011
Now that Cuba’s highest court has upheld the 15-year prison sentence for U.S. development worker Alan Gross, the key question is whether President Raúl Castro will free him as a humanitarian gesture. Castro has hinted he’s willing to do that. But there are other important questions to consider: Does Castro want something in return from the Obama Administration? And would the U.S. even offer anything? The answers may well determine how much colder, or warmer, the Gross case ends up making dysfunctional U.S.-Cuba relations.
The best-case scenario is Cuba’s unilateral release of the 62-year-old Gross, who has lost 100 lbs (45 kg) in jail since his December 2009 arrest for subversion, and whose 27-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer. But if Cuba is waiting for a U.S. goodwill gesture in advance of a humanitarian one, Gross’ horizons look darker. The Obama Administration insists, for example, it won’t release as part of a swap any of the five convicted Cuban spies currently sitting in U.S. prison. And it’s pressing on with the USAID-financed democracy-promotion program for which Gross was a subcontractor, which it insists only “helps the Cuban people connect with the rest of the world” by delivering computers and cell phones to the island, but which Havana says seeks to topple Cuba’s communist government.
Still, notes Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst and Cuba director at the independent National Security Archives in Washington, D.C., “It could take quite a political dance to get Alan Gross released.” And toward that end, Kornbluh and numerous other Cuba analysts I’ve spoken to since Gross exhausted his legal appeals on the island last Friday, August 5, say there is in fact one “legitimate, defensible” thing the U.S. can offer that would hasten the American’s freedom. That is, remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Cuba, which has been the object of a U.S. trade embargo since 1962, is certainly not recognized as a paragon of human rights. But only the most hardline anti-Castroites believe Cuba belongs with Iran, Sudan and Syria on State’s current roster of countries that aid terrorism – especially since far more worrisome nations like North Korea and Libya were recently taken off it. Most analysts agree Cuba is on the list to appease powerful Cuban-American politicians like U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and U.S. Representative and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, a crucial swing state where Cuban-American voters still have some clout. “It’s senseless,” says Kornbluh. “The campaign against terrorism is the last place you want the stain of electoral politics to intrude.”
Cuba has remained on the terrorism list since the Reagan Administration first put it there in 1982 to protest Havana’s support of leftist rebels in Central America. It stayed even after the CIA admitted in 2003 it had “no credible evidence” that Cuba was “engaged in or directly supported international terrorist operations.” And when a new list comes out, perhaps as soon as this month, Cuba is expected to be there still – even though Spain’s and Colombia’s ambassadors in Havana earlier this year told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that the presence in Cuba of certain rebel figures from their countries, one of the only rationales left for including Cuba, was “no longer a concern.”
Could Gross’ situation now change Obama’s mind about keeping Cuba on the terrorism sponsor list? Gross, a Jewish American who had made frequent trips into Cuba to deliver computer and cell phone equipment to the island’s Jewish community, was accused at his trial of breaking Cuban law by giving locals satellite communications technology that circumvents the government’s networks. But he and the Administration insist his actions did not merit the espionage conviction that resulted in his 15-year sentence. (Cuba has been widely criticized for not releasing the transcript of Gross’s trial and the evidence used against him.) On his visit to Cuba this year, Carter too told Castro that Gross “should be released because he is innocent of any serious crime.”
Still, notes Jennifer McCoy, Americas Director for Carter’s Atlanta-based Carter Center, “The Cuban government feels that there are [five] Cuban citizens in U.S prison who were not legitimately tried,” and it believes that Gross was involved in “unacceptable interference” in Cuban affairs because “the law authorizing the [USAID program] calls for regime change” in Cuba. “There is a risk to these programs, of putting people [like Gross] in danger,” says McCoy, echoing critics like U.S. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who until recently put a hold on USAID’s $20 million Cuba program.
So if the Obama Administration does face a degree of negotiation for Gross’ release, then the state terrorism sponsor list, which the President can change at his discretion without Congress’ approval, could be its best bargaining chip. Then again, Castro, who insisted he had to wait for the Cuban Supreme Court’s decision on Gross before he could consider his own, could make Gross’ humanitarian release unconditional. Either way, Gross’ U.S. lawyer, Peter Kahn, said last Friday that while Gross’ wife and family were “heartbroken” by the Cuban high court ruling, they’re “hopeful that there continues to be room for a diplomatic resolution.”
When it comes to the U.S. and Cuba, unfortunately, that room is usually as narrow as the Florida Straits. But, says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, “This is most likely going to require a political solution from both sides.” If Obama can look beyond Cuban-American politics – and if Castro can acknowledge that Gross was not attempting an electronic Bay of Pigs – this political dance could bring Washington and Havana into closer step for a change.
Correction: In the original version of this post, I mistakenly reported that Alan Gross had conceded breaking some Cuban laws at his trial. His lawyers have informed me that is not correct.