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Obama Shouldn’t Forget Our Man in Havana
7 MAR 19, 2014 4:39 PM ET
By Jeffrey Goldberg

When U.S. President Barack Obama looks abroad, he sees only the
possibility of frustration and more frustration. He will not be
supervising the return of Crimea to Ukraine. He and the West are unable
to end the slaughter of Syria’s citizens by its government. There is
little chance his administration will forge a final peace deal between
Israelis and Palestinians.

I believe that Obama should continue to apply himself assiduously to
these problems. But I also have a suggestion for something he could do
that might actually work. It’s something that would help undo a
five-decade-old American policy disaster, something that would begin the
process of resetting (to borrow a word) the U.S.’s relations with an
entire region, and something that would free a U.S. government
contractor — an American whose imprisonment is largely his own
government’s fault — from a foreign .

The dysfunctional U.S. relationship with Cuba is Washington’s
longest-running tragicomedy. For almost 55 years, the U.S. has treated
Cuba like a pariah state in the hope that sanctions, embargoes and broad
isolation would bring about the end of the Communist government. As a
general rule, if a policy hasn’t worked in more than half a century,
it’s probably time to find a new policy.

But a hard-line Cuban exile community, and its supporters in Congress,
has long made it difficult for any administration to imagine a new path
forward. Why, it’s almost as if opponents of a normalized relationship
with Cuba want to see the Communists under the Castro brothers rule the
island forever! A normal, functioning relationship, built on respect and
trade and the exchange of people and ideas, might lead to the very thing
the has failed to achieve: a more open, less-besieged Cuba.

American attitudes are changing in ways that would make an Obama push to
normalize relations less of a political risk. A recent poll conducted on
behalf of the Atlantic Council found that 56 percent of respondents
nationally favored a change in the U.S.-Cuba policy, but not only that:
63 percent of Floridians polled wanted a change, and 62 percent of
Latinos nationwide. The survey found that even 52 percent of
self-identified Republicans supported normalization of ties.

I can also report, based on my own data-driven journalism, that exactly
zero percent of Obama administration officials with broad national
security and foreign policy responsibilities think that U.S. Cuba policy
makes any sense. In fact, to most foreign policy practitioners, it’s an
obvious negative: U.S. relations with much of Latin America are strained
precisely because of our archaic approach to the challenge of Cuba. U.S.
policy makers with responsibility for the Western hemisphere report with
regularity the puzzlement and frustration of Latin American leaders, who
note — correctly — that the U.S. somehow manages to maintain
productive relations with the People’s Republic of . We moved, a
very long time ago, away from a policy of regime change in the matter of
Beijing’s Communists. But our policy today on Cuba is still one of
regime change — a policy put in place in the days of Presidents Dwight
D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

Which brings us to one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to
normalization, the imprisonment, in a Cuban military , of one
Alan , a resident of suburban Maryland and a contractor for the
U.S. Agency for International Development, which dispatched Gross in
2009 to Cuba on a semi-covert mission so farcical and lunkheaded as to
defy belief.

Gross, who is now 64, was hired by a USAID contractor, Development
Alternatives Inc., to deliver satellite Internet equipment to Cuban Jews
as part of a program funded as part of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which
authorized the U.S. government to engage in “democracy building efforts”
that would speed the removal of the Castro brothers. How, you ask, could
the provision of a modest quantity of satellite Internet equipment to
Cuba’s tiny — and notably unpersecuted — Jewish community, a community
that already has access to the Internet (I e-mail with its members quite
frequently), speed the downfall of Fidel and ? If you can
figure out the answer to this question, then you could work for the U.S.
government.

Soon after the passage of Helms-Burton, the government of Cuba outlawed
collaboration with the program. In other words, any American government
employee or contractor who visited Cuba to advance the Helms-Burton
mission would be breaking Cuban law. You would think, of course, that
the U.S. would send its best secret agents — think Ben Affleck in
“Argo” — to advance this obviously dangerous mission. But Gross had no
experience in semi-covert operations, no knowledge of Spanish and no
particular training for this mission. He also seemingly didn’t have much
sense that what he was doing was , at least at first: By his
third trip, he was warning his employers that “this is very risky
business in no uncertain terms.” On his fifth trip to Cuba — on a
visa — he was . After a trial, he was sentenced to 15
years in prison.

And then he was, in essence, abandoned by the government that sent him
to Cuba.

His lawyer in Washington, Scott Gilbert, told me last week that, when he
described the harebrained mission USAID hired his well-meaning but
entirely unprepared client to carry out, government officials reacted
with a combination of amusement and horror. “I ask people, ‘If this
project came across your desk when you were at USAID, what would you
have thought?’ The answer I often get is that they would have thought it
was an interoffice practical joke.” He went on, “I’ve been told by
former USAID officials that never in the history of that agency have
they sent a civilian into an environment like that of Cuba, a country
with which we have no diplomatic relations. As I’ve told U.S. government
officials, you knew with certainty that he would be arrested. Anyone who
has visited Cuba would understand that. What you guessed wrong on was
the severity of the penalty.”

Gilbert has been working pro bono for several years to help free Gross.
But he is getting no help at all from the government that sent him to
Cuba. “The U.S. government has effectively done nothing — nothing,” he
says, in the years since Gross was arrested, “to attempt to obtain his
other than standing up and demanding his unconditional release,
which is like looking up at the sky and demanding rain.”

As it happens, there is an obvious way to obtain Gross’s release. Three
Cuban intelligence agents are sitting today in American prisons. They
are members of what is known as the “Cuban Five,” a network of spies
rounded up in 1998. The Cuban Five were spying mainly on right-wing
Cuban groups in Florida. Two of the five have already
completed their sentences and have been returned to Cuba. Three remain
in prison, and one, the leader of the group, Gerardo Hernandez, was
sentenced to two life terms. The Cuban government is desperate to see
the return of these men, and would, by all accounts, be open to a trade.
There is huge precedent for such a trade (the U.S. conducted such
exchanges throughout the Cold War), and the Cuban foreign minister,
Bruno Rodriguez, has repeatedly indicated an openness to meet U.S.
officials without preconditions to discuss what he has termed a
humanitarian issue.

The U.S. argues — correctly — that Gross was not a spy, and that
therefore his actions were not equivalent to those of the Cuban Five.
But these sorts of trades are never neat. The U.S. should give up the
Cuban Five for Gross, especially because its own incompetence caused his
imprisonment. It should also negotiate with Cuba over Gross because this
is the only way toward normalization.

“Establishing a process to return Alan Gross home and the remaining
members of the Cuban Five to Cuba is necessary for more than just the
obvious humanitarian reasons,” Julia Sweig, a prominent Latin America
expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This could open the door to
a fundamental realignment of the entire relationship, and set it on a
normal and healthy path, and also vastly enhance Washington’s standing
across Latin America.”

At the very least, negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba would begin to
right a wrong the U.S. committed against one its own.

To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at
jgoldberg50@bloomberg.net.

Source: Obama Shouldn’t Forget Our Man in Havana – Bloomberg View –
http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-03-19/obama-shouldn-t-forget-our-man-in-havana

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