Magazine April 4, 2011, Issue

The Castros’ American Prisoner

They do what they do because they can. (Franklin Reyes/AP)
A tale of U.S.-Cuban relations

The case of Alan P. Gross is an extraordinary one, and an outrageous one. If you have not heard of Gross, you can be forgiven: His case has received relatively little press. He is a veteran American aid worker, who has concentrated on getting Internet access to those without it. He has done this all over the world. Since Dec. 3, 2009, he has been a prisoner, or a hostage, in the Castros’ Cuba. On March 12, 2011, a Cuban court (such as they are) sentenced him to 15 years in prison. His case tells us a lot about relations between Cuba and the United States, and in particular about relations between Cuba and the Obama administration. And what it tells us is not heartening.

Gross works, or worked, for a company called Development Alternatives Inc., in Bethesda, Md. DAI is a contractor of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The company was tasked with distributing aid to civil-society groups in Cuba. This was, in short, “democracy building.” Gross made five trips to the island. Specifically, he was working with the Jewish community there, only about 1,500 strong (or weak). With communications equipment, including satellite phones and computers, he was helping them connect to the outside world. Cuba is one of the darkest places on earth for the Internet. The dictatorship greatly fears technology in the hands of citizens, no matter how innocuous those citizens are.

At the end of that fifth visit, Gross was in the airport, ready to depart Cuba. It was then that the authorities nabbed him. They threw him in prison, where he sat for 14 months, without trial, even without charge. The Cubans were pretending that he was some sort of spy. This was laughable, to everyone familiar with Gross and his work. He spoke no Spanish, or broken Spanish. And he was quite obvious — tragically obvious, or indiscreet — in what he was doing. He was not accustomed to working behind an iron curtain. One longtime Cuba watcher says, “You have to know the beast, if you’re going to travel within the beast. And Gross had no clue.” The prisoner’s wife, Judy, said much the same thing: “He’s a humanitarian, an idealist, and probably was naïve.” We are not talking about a fire-breathing anti-Communist Republican. Gross was a volunteer field organizer for the Obama campaign.

It may seem awfully brazen, seizing an American aid worker and tossing him in prison. Why did the Cubans think they could get away with that? Well, they have, haven’t they? Cuba is a little Caribbean dictatorship; the United States is a superpower. But, over these months, the U.S. has appeared helpless. The Castros’ government wants some very specific things. They hate aid to civil-society groups, and want it stopped. They hate broad U.S. sanctions on Cuba, and want them lifted. And they want their spies — specifically the notorious “Cuban Five” — released from U.S. prisons. Alan Gross is a prisoner, a pawn, and a hostage. Earlier this year, Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican, questioned the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Valenzuela. He read to him a definition of “hostage”: “a person taken by force to secure the taker’s demands.” The assistant secretary agreed that Gross was, indeed, a hostage.

#page#The Cuban government’s seizure of Gross paid off almost immediately: U.S. aid to Cuban civil society ground to a halt. It is trickling now, but only trickling. And Gross’s predicament serves as a warning to all USAID contractors who would venture in.

Former congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, also a Miami Republican, and Cuban-born, makes a point about Castro — Fidel Castro, the Castro (still) in charge, certainly when it comes to dealing with Washington. The dictator “has always been a very good reader of American presidents.” He has had more than 50 years of practice — Eisenhower was in power when he grabbed control. He takes the measure of a president, knowing how far to push. Otto Reich, another Cuban-born American — who once held Arturo Valenzuela’s job in the State Department — remembers one of Lenin’s maxims: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.” What has Castro felt where Barack Obama is concerned?

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, gave the Cuban government fits. He bedeviled them in a number of ways, while offering incentives for reform. (They never bit at these incentives.) Obama, when he took over, made to conciliate the government. He made to conciliate the Latin American Left at large. At the Summit of the Americas in April 2009, he gave Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman, a soul-brother handshake. He also called him “mi amigo.” When a constitutional crisis erupted in Honduras two months later, Obama sided with the would-be Chávez of that country, Manuel Zelaya.

U.S. policy toward Cuba, he has loosened, even as Alan Gross has been a prisoner-hostage. Obama has permitted greater tourism to Cuba, and larger remittances. These changes result in an infusion of cash to the Cuban government — at a time when that government is in sore, even desperate, need of the cash.

And what has the administration been doing about the Gross case? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that U.S. officials raise it every time they meet with their Cuban counterparts. And last summer, she did something rather unusual: She asked American Jewish groups to do all they could to win Gross’s release. The prisoner is Jewish, and so, of course, are the people he was trying to help.

These groups have not done much, however, and that is at least in part because the Gross family has opted to be very low-key — hoping that “quiet diplomacy,” in the traditional phrase, will turn the trick. It has been a horrendous period for the Grosses. “Our 26-year-old daughter is fighting breast cancer,” Judy Gross told the Washington Post. “We have had to move out of our family home, and we have endured endless fear of what may happen to Alan.” The prisoner himself, 61, is in bad shape, suffering from a variety of ailments. In August, Mrs. Gross sent a letter to Raúl Castro, saying, “To the extent [Alan’s] work may have offended you or your government, he and I are genuinely remorseful.”

The Obama administration has tried a soft approach. What would a different approach have looked like? Elliott Abrams is another man who once held the job that Arturo Valenzuela now has: Under Reagan, he was the assistant secretary of state responsible for Latin America. (Otto Reich had the job under George W. Bush.) Abrams emphasizes the Castro government’s craving for dollars. So you could have said — you could still say — “As long as Alan Gross, an innocent man, is a prisoner, there will be no more charter flights” from the U.S. to Cuba. (These flights have expanded, of course, not contracted.) And we are not talking about a poor lefty stoner who went down to Cuba and got mixed up with drugs or something. We are talking about a USAID contract worker who was distributing official American aid.

#page#About one thing, the administration has been unequivocal: They have said that they will not swap the “Cuban Five” for Gross. That would be an obnoxious inequality. The Cuban Five were afforded every legal protection in the United States, and they were convicted of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. But the administration has already linked the Cuban Five to Gross, in this way: One of the five, Gerardo Hernández, was granted a visit by his wife, so that Judy Gross could visit Alan in Cuba. Hernández was convicted for his role in the Castro government’s 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes (in international airspace). Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — and, like Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-born Miami Republican — says that the two spousal visits suggested a “moral equivalence” that ought not to be.

In February, the 14th month of Gross’s imprisonment, the Cuban authorities finally charged him: with “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the State.” They gave him a two-day trial behind closed doors; and they sentenced him to 15 years. The state reported that Gross had “acknowledged that he had been used and duped” by his company, DAI. This sort of language has been a hallmark of Communist legal charades for many decades. It is quite possible that Cuba will soon release Gross, in a “humanitarian gesture.” Indeed, he may be at home by the time you read this article. Then again, he could continue to languish for a long while.

The Cuban government will do with Gross whatever suits them. And Ros-Lehtinen suspects that they will get what they want from the Obama administration: “continued concessions.” This administration has proven “weak,” she says, when it comes to “advancing freedom and justice for oppressed people.” She adds that the administration is always “putting up roadblocks” to the distribution of aid appropriated for Cuban democracy. “They say, ‘Well, the people we want to help will be branded CIA stooges.’ But they’re branded that way already! We might as well help them. They are feeling as isolated as ever.”

She says that she expects the Cuban government to pay no cost at all for what it has done to Gross. After all, they paid no cost for shooting down the Brothers to the Rescue planes — an attack that killed three U.S. citizens and one permanent resident. Why should they pay a cost for holding this aid worker? The whole thing seems very, very strange. Nixon warned that the United States must not be a “pitiful, helpless giant.” And that is exactly what we sometimes appear to be.

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