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:
Well below the mass media’s radar in the lead up to last weekend’s summit were scattered reports on the return to the United States of René Gonzalez, one of the five imprisoned Cuban agents, who is currently completing his sentence on supervised probation in Florida. Gonzalez requested—and was granted—permission by U.S. officials to visit his terminally ill brother in Cuba. The country’s official newspaper later reported, “As one more demonstration of his morals and honor, René has returned to fulfill additional punishment which requires him to remain in the U.S. on parole, far from his family, his people and homeland, despite having completed his full 13 year prison sentence.”
Alan Gross has made similar requests to allow him to visit his mother and daughter, both of whom are suffering from cancer in the United States. His requests have been denied. Now is the time for the Cuban government to reverse course and let Gross visit his family on humanitarian grounds.
There will be no quid pro quo deal for the jailed Cuban agents. Gross’s case has outlived any potential usefulness to the Cubans in that regard.
By allowing him to go home now, the Cubans can justify their decision on the domestic front out of reciprocity for U.S. leniency on Gonzalez’ request. Gross might not return to Cuba, but such an outcome could be a major public relations victory for Havana, who would paint it as yet another demonstration of “immoral” and “dishonorable” Yanqui conduct.
As an added bonus for the Cubans, Gross’ release would have implications for the Republican presidential campaign in Florida, which is surely prepared to use the case to stir up anti-Castro (and anti-Democrat) sentiment in the run up to the November elections in this key battleground state. Finally, Gross’ release would leave the door wide open in 2013 to a wide variety of policy options in the United States that are currently off the table due to his continued imprisonment, such as Cuba’s long sought-after removal from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror.
There are many areas where future administrations may be willing to negotiate greater openness in a new, more cordial environment. Secretary Clinton’s night on the town (now dubbed Cervezagate) did, after all, take place at Cartagena’s well-known salsa hang out Café Havana. Let Gross go home and, who knows? Her itinerary might one day include a night out at Havana’s famed Tropicana.
Matthew Aho is Manager of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and an Editor at Americas Quarterly.