Washington Jewish Week / February 24, 2011
By Larry Luxner
The United States and Cuba won't see any improvement in their hostile relationship until Alan Gross is freed from his Havana jail cell and allowed to come home.
That's the word from Bill Richardson - former member of Congress, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration and two-term governor of New Mexico who's just been named U.S. envoy to the Organization of American States.
Richardson, speaking at a Brookings Institution seminar on Cuba last week, has been to the island three times in the past 18 months as part of troubleshooting missions that have taken him to hot spots from North Korea to Iraq to Sudan throughout the years.
During his most recent trip to Cuba, in August, Richardson, who 10 years ago managed to secure the release of three prisoners from Cuba, specifically lobbied the Castro regime to free Gross, 61, a Jewish telecommunications expert from Potomac, who was arrested in December 2009 at Havana's airport as he was about to fly out of the country.
"The Cubans need to free Alan Gross," Richardson said of the man whom political analysts have labeled a "pawn" and a "human bargaining chip" in deteriorating relations between Washington and Havana. "He's been in prison 14 months, his family is not well, and the charges are dubious.
Nonetheless, there's a legal process going on, but for humanitarian reasons, I believe this man should be released. That should be the next step. Beyond that, there are other steps the United States should consider taking." Among them: removing Cuba from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism; expanding cooperation on oil spills and other common environmental threats; lifting restrictions on U.S. citizens opening bank accounts for their families in Cuba; and letting U.S companies export telecom equipment to the island.
In fact, it was telecom equipment that landed Gross in prison in the first place. The Cuban government insists Gross - whose company had a $690,000 contract with Bethesda-based Development Associates Inc. through the U.S. Agency for International Development - had entered Cuba on a tourist visa and was illegally distributing satellite phones to dissidents. Both DAI and the U.S. government counter that he was only helping the island's tiny Jewish community get online.
Earlier this month, Cuban prosecutors announced they'd attempt to put Gross behind bars for 20 years for "actions against the independence and territorial integrity of the state" - a euphemism for spying.
Reaction from both the administration and Congress was swift and furious.
"We deplore the Cuban government's announcement that Cuban prosecutors intend to seek a 20-year sentence for Alan Gross. His imprisonment without charges for more than a year is contrary to all international human rights obligations. He should be home with his family now," Gloria Berbena, spokesperson at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said in a statement.
"The news that the Castro brothers are seeking a 20-year imprisonment of Alan Gross for distributing cell phones to the Jewish community of Havana - after he has languished in a Cuban cell without access to medical care for 14 months - is outrageous," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said in a statement.
"This affront is magnified by the recent announcement by the Obama administration that the United States will be loosening travel restrictions, which will pump much-needed money into the desperate Cuban economy, boosting the Castro regime."
Yet Richardson said President Barack Obama is doing exactly what must be done - and that the latest development isn't necessarily bad news.
"On the one hand, it's good that the prosecution has moved forward with this charge of 20 years that is totally absurd. At least the judicial process has been started," he explained in response to a question.
"The next step is for the courts to hand out whatever sentence emerges. My hope is that the court says 'Mr. Gross, you can go,' and that there's a political process involved. My understanding is that after charges have been filed, the court is obligated to move fairly soon, but this case has become very significant with the American public, with the Obama administration, and rightly so."
Richardson added: "If they let Gross go, it will open a huge panoply of potential discussions that will lead to continued progress. Without talking about a quid pro quo, the last good move was the president's [relaxing of] travel restrictions. Hopefully someday, there'll be a total lifting of the travel ban so everybody can go to Cuba. I believe the Cubans are moving in that direction by settling it with this charge."
Gross, a longtime member of Congregation Am Kolel, has reportedly lost 90 pounds in detention, and is said to be suffering severe health problems. His daughter, Shira, 26, has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and his wife, Judy, visited him in Cuba last year, and was even allowed to accompany him to the beach.
Peter Kahn, the Gross family's attorney, did not return messages left at his D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly LLP.
Joe Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation who ran for Congress in 2008 and 2010 on the Democratic ticket but lost - both times to Republicans opposed to any change in U.S.-Cuba ties - agrees Washington could be doing more to win Gross' freedom. "I've spoken to almost every American official involved in U.S.-Cuba policy, even tangentially, and they all say the Gross case is a central stumbling block to open thinking," Garcia said.
"The Cubans clearly should not have put him in jail. We saw the charges. They've had Gross in custody for 14 months, but if there's something that distinguishes Raul from Fidel, it's pragmatic response to crisis. Fidel responds with charisma. Raul has to make the charisma work on a daily basis." Raul Castro succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, as president in 2008.
Nick Miroff of Global Post has his own take on the case. "If the Internet is the new battlefield in the long, simmering standoff between Cuba and the United States, then jailed American contractor Alan Gross is the conflict's first POW," he wrote. "No trial date has been set, but the Gross case, along with several other web-related developments, has offered the best insight yet into the Castro government's evolving views of the Internet, as Cuban authorities cautiously attempt to introduce modern technology while pushing back against U.S. efforts to wield it against them."