Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross from prison today on humanitarian grounds, paving the way for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for alleged espionage after he was arrested in December 2009 for bringing satellite equipment to Cuba.
This month marked the 5th anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment, and his health has been deteriorating. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” his wife, Judy Gross, said. A bipartisan group of 66 senators urged Obama to “act expeditiously…to obtain [Gross’s] release” in November.
The State Department has maintained Gross’ innocence and repeatedly demanded his release, stating that it is “an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”
President Obama publicly acknowledged last week that the U.S. was negotiating with Havana for Gross’ release. Obama is expected to announce Gross’ release at noon, along with a broad range of diplomatic measures expected to move towards normalizing the Cuba-U.S. relationship for the first time since the 1961 embargo.
Cuban President Raúl Castro is also expected to speak at noon about Cuba’s relations with the United States. Gross’ release comes ahead of the April 2015 Summit of the Americas, where Cuba is to participate for the first time and Obama is expected to meet with Castro.
At the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term, moves toward normalization between the United States and Cuba briefly seemed possible. Restrictions on travel and remittances were loosened, and Obama hinted at bigger changes during the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
However, the political space in the United States quickly closed after USAID contractor Alan Gross was detained by Cuban authorities in late 2009. Meanwhile, the continued detention of three members of the “Cuban Five” since 1998 by the United States remained a major irritant for Cuba.
This is not the first time that the fate of prisoners has played a significant role in U.S.-Cuban relations. During the 1960s, Cuban authorities detained four CIA agents who were engaged in covert activities on the island. Their status was a sticking point during discussions between the two countries about repairing relations. Carter administration officials met with Cuban counterparts, including Fidel Castro. When the administration inquired about the release of the CIA agents at the end of the 1970s, Castro pressed the United States to release Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned for violent attacks during the 1950s. [Editor’s note: This is not to imply that Alan Gross was a CIA agent or that he was engaged in espionage. The blog is simply drawing a parallel between to roughly similar moments in U.S.-Cuba relations and history and their relationship to the late Bob Pastor, who had been a contributor to Americas Quarterly.]
A new, 27-minute documentary entitled “The Non-Trade Trade,” explores the similarities between the prisoner releases of the late 1970s and the status of the prisoners being held today. Produced by Soraya Castro, a professor at the University of Havana, the film draws heavily on an oral history with the late Robert A. Pastor. Early in his career, Pastor served as the senior director for Latin America on President Carter’s National Security Council. [Disclosure: While I was not involved in the making of the documentary, Pastor was my dissertation supervisor at American University.] Both Pastor and the documentary argue for releasing the prisoners and improving U.S.-Cuban relations.
The United States released the second member of a group of five Cuban prisoners—known as the “Cuban Five”—from an Arizona prison on Thursday. Fernando González, 54, was convicted in 2001 of spying on military bases and Cuban exiles in South Florida, and is expected to be deported back to Cuba within days.
René González, a native of Chicago with dual citizenship, was the first member of the group to be freed in 2011, and returned to Cuba last year. The other members, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labaniño, will complete their terms in 2017 and 2024, respectively. The last member, Gerardo Hernández, is serving a double life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder after two planes flown by a Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, were shot down in 1996.
Over the last decade, the “Cuban Five” have been at the center of diplomatic tensions between the U.S. government and the Castro regime. The Cuban government allegedly offered to release the jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross in exchange for the freedom of the five Cuban prisoners, but Washington rejected the deal, saying that Gross did not engage in any intelligence-gathering on the island. The Cuban government jailed Gross on charges of committing crimes against the state, and he remains in prison.
González’ release comes two weeks after a national poll found that the majority of Americans support normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.
Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rebuked the possibility of a “unilateral” release of jailed USAID subcontractor Alan Gross on Wednesday amid growing concern by the United States over his health. Josefina Vidal, the top Cuban diplomat for North American affairs, said that the Cuban government has communicated the terms of Gross’ release to U.S. officials numerous times but did not receive a response. These terms would likely include concessions on the Americans’ part regarding the Cuban intelligence agents—known as the Cuban Five—who are currently serving treason and espionage charges in a Florida prison.
Wednesday’s heated exchange comes less than a month after Gross’ lawyer filed a petition with the United Nations Special Rapporteur claiming that his client has been denied adequate medical attention, “which constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” Since the filing, U.S. government officials and Gross’ relatives have stepped up pressure regarding his release, citing concerns over a mass that developed on Gross’ right shoulder earlier this year that, they claim, could be cancerous. Vidal denied the cancer rumors, saying that Cuban doctors conducted a biopsy that came out negative.
For the moment, Gross will continue to serve the 15-year prison sentence received in 2009 for handing out laptops in Cuba. At the time, he was on assignment as a subcontractor for USAID tasked with setting up wireless Internet connections for Cuba’s Jewish community as part of a $40 million-a-year program to promote democracy on the island.
The uproar over the scandalous behavior of U.S. Secret Service agents, combined with front-page reporting of Secretary of State Clinton’s late-night party at a local salsa club appear to have drowned out more serious coverage of last weekend’s sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.
Maybe it’s for the better. There isn’t much positive news to report—at least from a U.S. perspective.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón may have been impressed by President Obama’s patient demeanor during days-long speechifying by hemispheric leaders on issues ranging from the U.S.-led war on drugs to Argentina’s territorial claims to the Falkland Islands. But at the end of the day, 30 regional leaders refused to sign even a symbolic joint declaration, largely out of protest against U.S. policies that prevent one of our closest neighbors, Cuba, from joining the conversation. Even the host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, acknowledged that future summits will be in jeopardy unless Cuba gets its seat at the table.
To be fair, when it comes to Cuba’s participation, both sides have valid points. Latin American leaders rightly point out that the U.S. embargo and policies of isolation are ineffective Cold War relics. The Obama administration and Canada correctly note that membership in the Organization of American States (OAS), which organizes the summit, is reserved for democratically-elected governments, which Cuba’s is not. But what’s missing from this largely rhetorical debate is less wishful thinking and more nuts and bolts analysis on how to improve U.S.–Cuba relations in the years leading up to 2015, when Panama has offered to host the next summit.
Since taking office, President Obama has unilaterally relaxed rules on travel and remittances to Cuba to their loosest levels since the late 1970s, and he seems poised to do more. Given ongoing reforms in Cuba, changing attitudes in South Florida and growing calls for policy changes in the U.S., a substantially warmer relationship is possible.
The catch is that the ball is in Havana’s court and the Cubans refuse to pave the way to better relations by making one simple gesture: releasing 63-year-old USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned since December 2009 on charges stemming from his work to distribute sensitive communications technologies to independent civil society groups in Cuba.
Disregarding the particulars of either sides’ positions on Gross’ imprisonment, it’s safe to say that he has become a pawn in a larger diplomatic chess match and a thorn in the foot of U.S.–Cuba relations. Despite early indications that the Cuban government would consider releasing Gross on “humanitarian grounds,” they have since tied his fate to that of five Cuban intelligence agents imprisoned since 1998 in the U.S. and suggested that a prisoner swap is the only way to resolve the impasse—a nonstarter for the White House. So, Gross remains—in the views of many observers—the single biggest impediment to further bilateral progress.
The Cubans should let Alan Gross go home now. Here’s why:
From Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Honduran Prison Fire Kills over 350
A fire at Comayagua prison in central Honduras killed over 350 people on Tuesday night. The origin of the fire is unclear, though Honduran press speculated a short-circuit was the cause. Authorities suspect inmates escaped during the blaze. It is the third major prison fire in Honduras in the last decade and one of the deadliest Latin American prison fires in the last quarter century. Just last month, a fire also broke out at a forced detention drug treatment center in Peru, killing 27.
The Legacy of Honduras’ Coup
NPR’s Weekend Edition broadcast a two-part series on the legacy of Honduras’ 2009 military coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya from power. The series examines the effect of the coup on the country now, suggesting Honduras may owe its status as the world’s most violent country in part to that event. “If the president can be taken out of a country and have his rights taken away, without a trial or anything, then what becomes of your average citizen?” asks one Honduran.
Deposed Honduran President’s Wife Running for Office
Xiomara Castro, wife of former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, announced her candidacy for president of Honduras on February 11, reports Honduras’ La Tribuna. She will compete as a pre-candidate for the Popular Strength and Refoundation Party in November and would run in the 2013 presidential election. She pledged that, if elected, she would pursue constitutional reform. Her husband also pushed for such reforms before the military ousted him from power in 2009.
Delegations from the United States and Cuba will meet today to continue discussions on the Migration Accords initiated in 1994. The immigration discussions are in keeping with the “Obama administration’s commitment to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States,” noted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This marks the third time that the two countries will meet to discuss immigration since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The discussions had been suspended by the Bush administration in 2003 and were reinstated by the Obama administraion in July 2009.
The resumption of talks comes as the U.S. is negotiating the release of Alan Gross, a contractor for a U.S.-based global consulting firm, who has been held by Cuban authorities under charges of espionage for the past six months for allegedly distributing telecommunications equipment to dissidents in Cuba. The U.S. delegation is likely to use the meeting to press Cuban officials to release Gross. Secretary Clinton noted that Gross’s continued detention “is harming U.S.-Cuba relations,” and despite the resumption in talks, expectations are low that any significant progress will be made on the 16-year-old accords. "The migration talks have the potential to serve as a medium for resolution of the long-standing issues between the two nations," said Paul Wander of the Inter-American Dialogue "but they are unlikely to do so because real diplomatic developments remain stymied by the fact that both countries feel as though the ball is in the other's court."
This post is a follow-up to my Unleash the Googles entry from last week. But now I would like to specifically focus on the human rights implications of Alan Gross’ detention.
Why is the
Alan Gross did not sign a privacy waiver. That simple. Out of respect for this request, the
For now, it’s all very murky, enhancing the cloak and dagger mystique around this 60-year-old guy from the suburbs of
We could be rebutting more aggressively the charges that the Obama administration is still
U.S.-Cuba dynamics continue to follow the traditional script of mixed signals. The romance is there; the trust is not.
Shortly after U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bisa Williams returned from extended talks in
Another kicker came on Thursday when the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, told reporters that immigration talks in
Part of the Cuban agenda presented to the government of the United States is a proposal for a new immigration agreement and solidifying cooperation in the fight against people trafficking,” Rodríguez is translated as saying in English by Reuters. Let’s hope that
The imprisonment of Mr. Gross (or “Harold,” as he was first named to me in early December) serves as a good reminder of the criminals-in-office we are dealing with in
Why didn’t we complain louder about Gross’ continued detention? For one, the man and his family did not sign a privacy waiver with the State Department, and without that waiver the U.S. Department of State and U.S. embassies and consulates abroad cannot release information on an individual—even when it hurts our national interests.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.