Alan Gross: time for a negotiated solution

The case of Alan Gross, an American development expert sentenced by Cuba to fifteen years in prison for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state", is the latest instalment in the tense story of Cuba-US relations. Negotiating is the only way to break the cycle.

Last year, in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of representatives, Rep. David Rivera (R-FL) demanded that Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, reveals whether the US somehow tried to negotiate with Havana, the release of Alan Gross. Mr. Gross is an international development expert who worked for a contract of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and is serving a fifteen year prison sentence in Cuba, condemned for participating in acts against Cuban sovereignty and political integrity.

Gross entered Cuba five times as a non-registered foreign agent. His mission, as a USAID subcontractor, was to create a wireless Internet network that would circumvent Cuban government detection. The USAID program was approved under section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act, a law committed to regime change in Cuba. Gross’ actions were covert. He never obtained the informed consent of the Cuban Jewish community, which has always expressed opposition to the Helms-Burton law, particularly its attempt to politicize religious communities as tools to promote opposition groups. 

Mr. Gross didn’t know Cuba and didn’t speak Spanish. Gross loved Cuban music but that is hardly a qualifier for the type of covert mission he was recruited for by Development Alternatives Initiatives (DAI), a contractor for the US government. A clear indication of the lack of professionalism of the USAID Cuba program is its recently declassified list of go-to sources of information about Cuba headed by the website Babalu Blog. You don’t need to be a Cuba expert to realize that the Babalu blog is hardly eduational on Cuba but disseminates right wing propaganda against every Cuban American or American who disagrees with its writers’ McCarthyism. According to Babalu Blog, for example, President Obama is a “Marxist tyrant” in the “Stalin-Mao-Castro tradition”. 

Questioning the Obama administration, Republican congressman Rivera said: "It is outrageous that the Obama administration would be negotiating with a terrorist regime to free an American hostage."

This policy is correct: the US should not give in to the demands of terrorists. That would only encourage them to take further hostages. But this has nothing to do with Gross or Cuba.

Rivera's references to terrorism are a manipulation. The State Department has not recorded a single terrorist act sponsored by Cuba in two decades. Recently, Havana hosted another round of negotiations between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos. The Colombian government not only appreciated Cuba’s facilitation of the conversations but also demanded that Havana be included in the next Summit of the Americas. In Spain, the other country supposedly a target of groups protected by Cuba, the ETA has demobilized and successive socialist and popular governments have thanked Havana for receiving freed commandos of the Basque organization.

Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba, not kidnapped. When Secretary Clinton says: “Mr.Gross was not a spy. Mr. Gross worked for a development group that was helping Cubans”, she is hiding part of the truth. Mr. Gross was not an intelligence agent - he is not a hostage but a victim of the US policy of regime change. If Washington agreed to negotiate his freedom with Cuba, such action would not create any risk of abduction of other Americans. Cuba does not kidnap American tourists in the way that Hamas and Hezbollah have done with Israeli citizens in order to trigger new negotiations.

The Obama administration publicly repeating that the only way to solve the Gross case is for Cuba to "unconditionally" release him has surrendered the political initiative to the Cuban right. These hard-line exiles, to whom President Obama owes nothing (They tried to prevent his re-election by presenting Obama as a socialist in cahoots with Hugo Chavez and Mariela Castro), still do not accept their own responsibility for Gross’ tragedy. 

Gross' arrest was not a surprise in the history of Washington’s conflicts with Cuban sovereignty, caused largely by some exile groups' insistence on maintaining the US embargo against Cuba and imposing regime change from the outside. Those in the USAID who sent Gross to Cuba knew that the American law he was working under is considered a violation of Cuban sovereignty not only by the Cuban government but also by the United Nations and most of Cuban civil society, particularly all the main religious communities.

No matter how much one might sympathize with attempts to expand internet access in Cuba, the protection of Cuban cyberspace, according to international law, is the responsibility of the Cuban state. Given the history of terrorist attacks by Cuban exiles against the island, sometimes with the tolerance of the US government, at best, and its complicity at worst, it is logical that the Cuban authorities would consider any attempt to undermine its control over its cyberspace as a serious threat to its national integrity.

For decades, Cuban technological development has been forestalled by restrictions on trade with the largest market in the world, just ninety miles from its shores. The USAID Cuba program attempts to create selective access for opponents of the Cuban government while the embargo denies the sale of the same technology and internet access to the Cuban government and its supporters, or the Cuban people. This is not promotion of access to information or democracy as a process but covert support for the political opposition.

After his re-election, President Obama has the flexibility that he lacked before November. Judy and Alan Gross' suit against the US government is an interpellation against poorly designed USAID programs in Cuba. If Gross was uninformed about the risks he was taking and was not prepared to face them, then what does that say about the irresponsibility of US in imposing these risks on the Cuban citizens who are used in these programs without obtaining their informed consent? It is time to think about creative alternatives, such as the transfer of millions in USAID funds to less provocative and intrusive initiatives. Wouldn't it be less controversial to give university scholarships or sponsor programs aimed at economic development and humanitarian aid, without any connection to the Helms-Burton law?

Any negotiated solution has its costs but it is logical to compare it with the alternatives. In Washington and Miami, the discussion is incomplete if hardliners do not assume the cost of the US government abdicating its moral and legal responsibilities towards someone who worked for the USAID programs conceived under the Helms-Burton law. The sectors opposed to a negotiation have prevailed without even explaining the benefits, costs and uncertainties of the proposed course of action. It is time they explain to Judy Gross that their proposal amounts to leaving her husband behind bars for four years and more.

The choice of negotiating Gross’ release with the Cuban government should be discussed on its merits. Cuba has prisoners in the US, convicted and sentenced to long terms, who they want released as well. If there are issues obstructing a US pardon of these Cuban agents in exchange for Gross’ release, the Obama administration should present them honestly to the American public. These issues include: Did these Cuban agents really harm American national security? Did they receive a just and impartial trial in Miami? Does the USAID and State Department bear responsibility for Gross’ imprisonment? Do the regime change policies and the embargo itself serve US democratic values and national interests?

The day there is political will in Washington and Havana to solve the structural problems of the bilateral relationship between the two countries; they will creatively solve the Gross affair. Discussions about Gross’ imprisonment are always about more than Gross himself. Mr. Gross’ imprisonment is a gift for Cuban right-wing exiles to defend the ban on travel to Cuba until the 2016 elections. Hence, the worst case scenario is the absence of negotiations on topics of mutual interest. Havana must also think twice. Nothing would be worse than wasting the next four years of Obama's second term without promoting a less confrontational relationship. It would not be in Cuba's national interest. It would not improve the situation of Cuban agents still serving sentences in 2016.

About the author

Arturo Lopez-Levy is a Doctoral Candidate and lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. He is a co-author of the book “Raul Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-Up View of Change”, McFarland Publishers, 2011.