The Corner

Foreign U.S. Hostages: Successes and Failures

It is good news that American pro-democracy workers in Cairo have come home, after being threatened with prosecution by the Egyptian military government. To its credit, the Obama administration took a strong position, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatening to cut off billions of dollars in U.S. assistance to Egypt unless the workers were released. The message was clear: Americans promoting human rights and civil society must not become hostages anywhere in the world.

In contrast, however, U.S. citizen Alan Gross, a USAID sub-contractor, is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for bringing laptop computers and cell phones to the small Cuban Jewish community on the island. Gross did not do anything remotely meriting such punishment. Cuba’s outrageous charges are identical to the intimidation and disinformation campaigns of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

What Cuba wanted when it seized Gross was a hostage to be traded for the release of five professional Cuban spies who infiltrated American military bases, were captured, tried, found guilty, and are serving prison sentences in the United States. Bill Richardson, a former Democratic congressman, governor of New Mexico and U.S. representative to the United Nations, publicly said as much when he identified Gross as a “hostage.” Gross is no spy, and Washington should not accept Havana’s blackmail nor allow the Castros to dictate U.S. policy.

There are policymakers in the Obama administration who think a “softer approach” to Havana (and other hostile states) is in order. Rather than emulate its own successful strategy in Egypt and threaten to cut off the flow of remittances and American tourist dollars to Cuba, the administration simply continues to request the Castro government to be fair and release Gross on humanitarian grounds.

The United States cannot continue extending a hand of friendship to Havana and expecting to obtain a favorable result. Moreover, since Cuba requires U.S. citizens born in Cuba to purchase a Cuban passport when they visit family on the island, a large number of travelers are taking a risk. They are putting themselves at the mercy of the Cuban government since they are not under the protection of a U.S. passport.

Secretary Clinton should be telling Havana, just as she so clearly told Cairo, that if Gross, who has spent more than two years in Castro’s dungeons, is not quickly released, the United States will reinstate restrictions against tourist travel and suspend remittances. Providing hard currency to any country holding American hostages is both immoral and self-defeating. 

— Otto J. Reich is former Ambassador of the United States to Venezuela and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.

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