When U.S. President Barack Obama looks abroad, he sees only the possibility of frustration and more frustration. He will not be supervising the return of Crimea to Ukraine. He and the West are unable to end the slaughter of Syria’s citizens by its government. There is little chance his administration will forge a final peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
I believe that Obama should continue to apply himself assiduously to these problems. But I also have a suggestion for something he could do that might actually work. It's something that would help undo a five-decade-old American policy disaster, something that would begin the process of resetting (to borrow a word) the U.S.’s relations with an entire region, and something that would free a U.S. government contractor -- an American whose imprisonment is largely his own government's fault -- from a foreign prison.
The dysfunctional U.S. relationship with Cuba is Washington’s longest-running tragicomedy. For almost 55 years, the U.S. has treated Cuba like a pariah state in the hope that sanctions, embargoes and broad isolation would bring about the end of the Communist government. As a general rule, if a policy hasn’t worked in more than half a century, it’s probably time to find a new policy.
But a hard-line Cuban exile community, and its supporters in Congress, has long made it difficult for any administration to imagine a new path forward. Why, it’s almost as if opponents of a normalized relationship with Cuba want to see the Communists under the Castro brothers rule the island forever! A normal, functioning relationship, built on respect and trade and the exchange of people and ideas, might lead to the very thing the embargo has failed to achieve: a more open, less-besieged Cuba.
American attitudes are changing in ways that would make an Obama push to normalize relations less of a political risk. A recent poll conducted on behalf of the Atlantic Council found that 56 percent of respondents nationally favored a change in the U.S.-Cuba policy, but not only that: 63 percent of Floridians polled wanted a change, and 62 percent of Latinos nationwide. The survey found that even 52 percent of self-identified Republicans supported normalization of ties.
I can also report, based on my own data-driven journalism, that exactly zero percent of Obama administration officials with broad national security and foreign policy responsibilities think that U.S. Cuba policy makes any sense. In fact, to most foreign policy practitioners, it’s an obvious negative: U.S. relations with much of Latin America are strained precisely because of our archaic approach to the challenge of Cuba. U.S. policy makers with responsibility for the Western hemisphere report with regularity the puzzlement and frustration of Latin American leaders, who note -- correctly -- that the U.S. somehow manages to maintain productive relations with the People’s Republic of China. We moved, a very long time ago, away from a policy of regime change in the matter of Beijing’s Communists. But our policy today on Cuba is still one of regime change -- a policy put in place in the days of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
Which brings us to one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to normalization, the imprisonment, in a Cuban military hospital, of one Alan Gross, a resident of suburban Maryland and a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which dispatched Gross in 2009 to Cuba on a semi-covert mission so farcical and lunkheaded as to defy belief.
Gross, who is now 64, was hired by a USAID contractor, Development Alternatives Inc., to deliver satellite Internet equipment to Cuban Jews as part of a program funded as part of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which authorized the U.S. government to engage in “democracy building efforts” that would speed the removal of the Castro brothers. How, you ask, could the provision of a modest quantity of satellite Internet equipment to Cuba’s tiny -- and notably unpersecuted -- Jewish community, a community that already has access to the Internet (I e-mail with its members quite frequently), speed the downfall of Fidel and Raul Castro? If you can figure out the answer to this question, then you could work for the U.S. government.
Soon after the passage of Helms-Burton, the government of Cuba outlawed collaboration with the program. In other words, any American government employee or contractor who visited Cuba to advance the Helms-Burton mission would be breaking Cuban law. You would think, of course, that the U.S. would send its best secret agents -- think Ben Affleck in “Argo” -- to advance this obviously dangerous mission. But Gross had no experience in semi-covert operations, no knowledge of Spanish and no particular training for this mission. He also seemingly didn't have much sense that what he was doing was illegal, at least at first: By his third trip, he was warning his employers that “this is very risky business in no uncertain terms.” On his fifth trip to Cuba -- on a tourist visa -- he was arrested. After a trial, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
And then he was, in essence, abandoned by the government that sent him to Cuba.
His lawyer in Washington, Scott Gilbert, told me last week that, when he described the harebrained mission USAID hired his well-meaning but entirely unprepared client to carry out, government officials reacted with a combination of amusement and horror. “I ask people, ‘If this project came across your desk when you were at USAID, what would you have thought?' The answer I often get is that they would have thought it was an interoffice practical joke.” He went on, “I’ve been told by former USAID officials that never in the history of that agency have they sent a civilian into an environment like that of Cuba, a country with which we have no diplomatic relations. As I’ve told U.S. government officials, you knew with certainty that he would be arrested. Anyone who has visited Cuba would understand that. What you guessed wrong on was the severity of the penalty.”
Gilbert has been working pro bono for several years to help free Gross. But he is getting no help at all from the government that sent him to Cuba. “The U.S. government has effectively done nothing -- nothing," he says, in the years since Gross was arrested, "to attempt to obtain his freedom other than standing up and demanding his unconditional release, which is like looking up at the sky and demanding rain.”
As it happens, there is an obvious way to obtain Gross’s release. Three Cuban intelligence agents are sitting today in American prisons. They are members of what is known as the “Cuban Five,” a network of spies rounded up in 1998. The Cuban Five were spying mainly on right-wing Cuban dissident groups in Florida. Two of the five have already completed their sentences and have been returned to Cuba. Three remain in prison, and one, the leader of the group, Gerardo Hernandez, was sentenced to two life terms. The Cuban government is desperate to see the return of these men, and would, by all accounts, be open to a trade. There is huge precedent for such a trade (the U.S. conducted such exchanges throughout the Cold War), and the Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, has repeatedly indicated an openness to meet U.S. officials without preconditions to discuss what he has termed a humanitarian issue.
The U.S. argues -- correctly -- that Gross was not a spy, and that therefore his actions were not equivalent to those of the Cuban Five. But these sorts of trades are never neat. The U.S. should give up the Cuban Five for Gross, especially because its own incompetence caused his imprisonment. It should also negotiate with Cuba over Gross because this is the only way toward normalization.
“Establishing a process to return Alan Gross home and the remaining members of the Cuban Five to Cuba is necessary for more than just the obvious humanitarian reasons,” Julia Sweig, a prominent Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This could open the door to a fundamental realignment of the entire relationship, and set it on a normal and healthy path, and also vastly enhance Washington’s standing across Latin America.”
At the very least, negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba would begin to right a wrong the U.S. committed against one its own.
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