Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are back in the United States after enjoying the hospitality of Fidel and Raúl Castro in Havana and visiting with Alan Gross, an American serving a 15-year sentence for giving away a satellite telephone and a laptop to Cubans. They also met with Cuban dissidents, notably mothers and wives of political prisoners and Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger who has received substantial international attention in recent months.
Of course there are already some who have expressed their outrage at what they say was President Carter’s emphasis on the need to lift the U.S. trade embargo and his “feeble efforts” to bring home Alan Gross, who Carter reports lost 88 pounds during more than 15 months in Cuban jails.
Nevertheless, the Carters should be given credit where credit is due. While the eyes of the world are focused on the struggles against dictatorship in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and the nuclear disaster in Japan, the Carters’ journey helps remind international opinion not only about U.S.-Cuba policy but about the 52-year-old Cuban dictatorship, Havana’s political captives, and the courage of Cubans who continue to face harassment, beatings and imprisonment for their desire to bring to an end the last dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
Yet, there is something to the idea that President Carter believes in “dictatorships and double standards,” a phrase made famous by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who later became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in her critique of the Carter’s foreign policy.
In August 2010, the former president was invited by Kim Jung-Il, North Korea’s tyrant, to visit Pyongyang, where he obtained the release of Aijalon Gomes, an American who had been sentenced to eight years for entering North Korea illegally. Gomes spent a total of four months in prison, and Carter, who has taught Sunday school, no doubt knows of the ancient Talmud teaching that “he who saves a life, saves the world.”
While in Havana, Carter made several efforts to lower the expectation that he would bring home Mr. Gross, who is a subcontractor for the USAID democracy program. Mr. Gross has already spent 15 months in prison for “crimes against the security of the state,” the terminology used by the Cuban government to describe giving away communication equipment to Cubans.
Aijalon Gomes’ stay in a North Korean prison was no picnic, but no one denies that he had entered North Korea illegally. Gross, on the other hand, entered Cuba legally and his draconian punishment is unheard of in any normal country around the world.
By lowering expectations, Carter removed any substantial pressure on the Cuban authorities to release Gross.
Pleading with the Castro brothers to release political prisoners is nothing new. The old joke in Havana is that when an important leader visits France, he is given a work of art and a bottle of wine; that when you visit Queen Elizabeth of England you might receive a handsome book signed by the Monarch, and that politicians visiting Havana take home one of Castro’s captives.
Reverend Jessie Jackson went to Cuba and brought back a couple dozen long-term political prisoners. In response to pleadings from French President Francois Mitterrand, Havana released Armando Valladares, who had spent 22 years in prison. When Senator Edward Kennedy asked Castro, the regime allowed poet Heberto Padilla to emigrate and the Senator, who had not gone to Havana, received Padilla upon his arrival in the United States.
The Carters had in their pocket the key that could have sprung Alan Gross out of prison. Kennedy, Mitterrand, or Jessie Jackson were not more important to the Havana leadership than the Carters’ campaign to end unilaterally the U.S. embargo.
Tragically President Carter has yet to comment on the arrest and harassment of several human rights activists during his visit to the island, or whether he mentioned their plight during his encounters with the Castro brothers.
Just like President Carter did during his administration when he made efforts to improve relations with Cuba by opening a U.S. interests section in Havana while Cuba opened its own in Washington, President Barack Obama wants to have normal relations between the two countries. Obama offered “to extend an open hand” of friendship expecting Havana to reciprocate by “unclenching its fist.” Obama has ended restrictions on Cuban-American travel and Cuban-American remittances to Cuba; but helping Cuban families can also help the state to maintain repression and its military and security forces.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba today is the largest diplomatic presence on the island. There are more diplomats from the United States in Cuba than there are from France, Russia, Spain, or any other country. And the much maligned embargo is but a pale reflection of its former self. Today, U.S. companies sell hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural products to the island, including the newsprint used by the regime to publish anti-American diatribes.
Carter’s well-meaning efforts in the 1970s were perceived by Fidel as a sign of weakness. President Carter was confronted by the deployment of Cuban forces in the horn of Africa under the command of Soviet generals and a refugee crisis of great proportions.
Now fast forward to today. Obama’s Cuban outreach has yet to be reciprocated. In the words of the White House, “the ball remains in Havana’s court.” The Castro brothers know very well what President Obama has requested: the release of political prisoners, the return of Alan Gross, and the implementation of political and economic reforms. The Carters’ visit may end up being an unnecessary distraction, since Obama just a few days ago raised his concerns about Cuba while visiting Chile.
Obama will do well to remain steadfast in his position, and to refuse to be intimidated and blackmailed. Havana would like the United States to release Cuban spies serving prison terms in the United States despite the evidence presented in the trial, in which one of them was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, of Havana’s instructions to them to find suitable sites in South Florida for the landing of Cuban weapons and personnel.
Former President Carter said that there was no basis to compare Gross and the five Cuban spies, but while in Havana, Carter accepted the Cuban government’s decision to not release Alan Gross, while calling on the United States to release the five Cuban spies.
In a way, their behavior in Havana could be understood to reflect President Carter’s upbringing. He and the former First Lady are the epitome of Southern gentility and good manners. They are not the kind to raise impolite issues with their hosts.
*Frank Calzon is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is the Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington DC.