Spy Swap: the Reality Show Washington and Havana Have Yet to Learn

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This April 7, 2010 file photo shows posters with portraits of five Cubans jailed in the United States - Rene Gonzalez Sehwerert, Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo, Fernando Gonzalez Llort, Ramon Labanino Salazar and Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, dispayed in front of the Cuba's Consulate during a demonstration in support of Cuban revolution in Sao Pablo, Brazil. (Nelson Almeida-AFP-Getty Images)

During the Cold War, spy swaps were seemingly commonplace. Iconic, in fact: countless movies of the era use scenes of spooks and dissidents being exchanged at Checkpoint Charlie. And we still do it: just last year, the U.S. sent 10 arrested Russian agents home while Russia in turn let go four prisoners accused of espionage whose releases were sought by Washington.

So why are the U.S. and Cuba – whose relations are hopelessly mired in a cold-war time warp – so bad at this cold-war ritual? Case in point: the dysfunctional drama surrounding U.S. contract aid worker Alan Gross, who has been sitting in a Cuban jail for two years, and Cuban agent René González, who was freed from a U.S. prison this morning after serving 13 years.

Gross, 62, was arrested in 2009 and later convicted on subversion charges for bringing satellite communications equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community, under a State Department pro-democracy program, without permission. Though he insisted his work was purely humanitarian and not espionage, a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years. The punishment is widely considered Cuba’s retaliation for the 2001 conviction of five Cuban operatives arrested in Miami, including González, for spying and failing to register as foreign agents. (One of the men was also convicted of conspiracy in the deaths of four Cuban exiles whose small, unarmed planes were shot down in 1996 by Cuban fighter jets for allegedly violating Cuban airspace.) The spies, known as the “Cuban Five,” claimed they were simply working to thwart exile terrorism plots against communist Cuba, but their sentences ranged from 15 years in González’s case to life in prison.

González, 55, is the first to be paroled, but a judge recently denied his request to return immediately to Cuba and his family, insisting he has to serve three years’ probation in the U.S. For weeks now, speculation has been rampant that the Obama Administration would find a way to send González home as a means of prodding Cuban President Raúl Castro to release Gross – who has lost 100 lbs (45 kg) in prison and whose 27-year-old daughter has breast cancer – as a humanitarian gesture, something Castro has said he’s willing to do.

But whether because of election-year pressure from politically powerful Cuban-Americans like U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami – the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week called González “an enemy of America” who must be kept under watch during his probation – or because of Castro’s apparent refusal to accept the waiver of González’s probation as sufficient reason to free Gross – former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson was rebuffed when he reportedly conveyed that offer from Obama during a visit to Cuba last month – no such swap appears to be in the works. And neither the U.S. nor Cuba will come out of this looking good to the world. “It’s an international black eye on both our houses,” says Anya Landau French, director of the New America Foundation’s U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative in Washington.

(See “The Alan Gross Affair: the U.S. and Cuba Begin Their Dysfunctional Dance”)

The U.S.’s p.r. shiner will stem from the impression that it’s done comparatively little to secure Gross’ freedom after moving so quickly last year to win the release of Russian prisoners who weren’t even Americans. Nor can the U.S. really argue that keeping González in country for three additional years serves that many national security interests. Many also feel the State Department bears a large share of the blame for Gross’ situation, since according to his family and lawyers he wasn’t aware that the USAID program he was serving, via a non-governmental contractor, was financed by U.S. legislation whose aim is regime change in Cuba. (Others question whether Gross really could have been that naive.) At the same time, while the U.S. says Gross did not receive a fair trial in Havana, Cuba complains that the Cuban Five themselves were tried in the prejudiced exile atmosphere of Miami.

Meanwhile, as Landau French notes in the Havana Note blog, this week marks the 35th anniversary of the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed all 73 on board. America’s moral leverage is undermined by the fact that alleged exile terrorist Luis Posada Carriles – whom the FBI has implicated in the 1976 plane bombing as well as those of of two Havana hotels in 1997 that killed a tourist – walks the streets of Miami without ever being tried in the U.S. for those crimes. It’s also a reminder that the U.S. could help Gross’ case by agreeing to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism: most analysts agree that Cuba’s inclusion on the roster is the result of Cuban-American political clout in Washington. (Obama has also reportedly offered to work to strike Cuba from the list.)

But Cuba certainly risks its own moral scrutiny. Many believe, as Gross claims, that it’s doubtful his intent was anti-communist espionage, even if he did violate Cuban laws about bringing communications technology to the island that can circumvent government networks (though Gross insists the equipment cleared Cuban customs). On his own visit to Cuba earlier this year, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter conceded the Cuban Five were tried “under doubtful circumstances” in Miami; but he insisted Gross “is innocent of any serious crime.” And while the Cuban Five may be heroes in Cuba, Castro has had a hard time convincing the rest of the world that Gross’ infraction is equal to the more genuine spywork undertaken by González and company, who were also convicted for trying to infiltrate U.S. military installations. That’s especially true since one of the men was charged with activities that helped lead to the fighter-jet deaths.

As a result, if Castro does deem offers from Washington to send González home, or to take Cuba off the state terrorism sponsor list, to be inadequate – if, as many in Washington fear, he’s holding out for the release of all the Cuban Five as a condition for Gross’ freedom – he doesn’t stand to score many points with folks like the foreign investors, especially in Europe, that he needs to help to pull his island out of its financial tailspin. His critics say he could even end up focusing more attention on Cuba’s human rights record.

Meanwhile, González’s lawyers plan to appeal the ruling to keep him in the U.S. for another three years. Whether or not they’re successful, it’s obvious that both the U.S. and Cuba have lost another opportunity to escape their cold-war time warp – largely because they seem incapable of practicing one of the Cold War’s best known customs.

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