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 film uses original documents about the prisoner releases of the 1970s, which it refers to as the “non-trade trade.” While the prisoner releases were closely linked, Pastor argues that they were individual, humanitarian gestures. The Carter administration had no guarantee that after commuting the Puerto Ricans’ sentences, the release of the CIA agents would follow. Carter took the risk, and Cuba released the agents shortly afterward.
There are few perfect historical analogies in foreign policy, and the parallels between today’s prisoners and those of the 1970s are not perfect, either. As Pastor himself often said, in drawing on history, it is important that analysts give as much weight to the differences as the similarities. There are important differences between the prisoners, as well as in the broader political context of the day. The CIA operatives had the bureaucratic support of their agency; Alan Gross, a subcontractor for a company undertaking a USAID project, has not received the same bureaucratic response, despite public calls for his release. USAID has continued to fund projects similar to Gross’ ill-fated mission, including the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” and sending Latin American students to sound out civil society opposition to the Cuban government.
The imprisonments of Gross and the remaining members of the Cuban Five have been offered by both sides as a reason why relations cannot be improved. Those who see Gross’s imprisonment as “the chief obstacle to a diplomatic breakthrough,” including the The New York Times, should also consider why a broader effort to normalize relations has failed, despite the prisoner release of 1979.
It was hoped that the “non-trade trade” of 1979 would pave the way for a new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. But back then, U.S. objections to Cuban military involvement in Africa were already weakening the push for rapprochement. Global factors grew inauspicious as the superpower détente of the 1970s slid into the renewed confrontation on the early 1980s. Carter’s push for normalization was a spark for Cuban-American opposition, leading to the creation of the Cuban American National Foundation. In the face of stiff headwinds, the prisoner-swap was not enough.
Today, the international environment seems to encourage rapprochement, with-near unanimous condemnation of the U.S. embargo in the United Nations and strong Latin American pressure to reincorporate Cuba into the inter-American system. This might not be so clear-cut, however. The United States’ still-unrivaled position as a superpower allows it to ignore global opinion on Cuba and, Robert Jervis has argued, creates dynamics that lead the United States to respond to domestic, not international, pressures.
In short, the argument for a prisoner swap today should be humanitarian; its effect on U.S.-Cuban relations may be short-lived.