Freeing Alan Gross — Does it hinge on what the definition of “equivalence” is?


ANNOUNCEMENT: CDA has started a petition asking Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to end the double-standard they adhere to by allowing top staffers to visit China while opposing U.S. citizens’ right to travel to Cuba. Watch the video below and sign the petition here.


A sad and troubling milestone was passed on Wednesday, which marked the fifth anniversary of Alan Gross’s arrest in Cuba.

This week, the State Department said, “[his] continued incarceration represents a significant impediment to a more constructive bilateral relationship.” Florida politicians demanded, predictably, that the administration tighten sanctions further rather than negotiate with Cuba for his release. As White House sources assured ABC News that the president and the National Security Council were working on a solution, his family said Mr. Gross is “wasting away.”

When members of a CDA delegation saw Mr. Gross in prison in 2011, it would have been unimaginable that this drama would last this long. After several other visits, it’s still inconceivable that his life — and the future of our relations with Cuba policy — now hinges on the definition of equivalence, when his route to freedom is simple and clear. Yet, this is where things seem to stand.

In 2009, Mr. Gross, a USAID subcontractor, was arrested in Havana for committing “Acts Against the Independence or Territorial Integrity of the State.” As Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation, “Gross was arrested on his fifth trip to Cuba while attempting to create untraceable satellite communications networks on the island; a Cuban court subsequently sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.”

For years, Cuba’s government professed its willingness to negotiate for his release. A deal seemed imminent in 2010, as Newsweek reported, until U.S. assurances that the Helms-Burton-funded activities which led to Gross’ arrest would be trimmed back were undermined by USAID itself.

Then Cuba linked a solution to the fates of five imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents. They were arrested in 1998 and later convicted in a politically-charged trial that is still being reviewed due to allegations of misconduct by the U.S. government. For crimes that included failing to register as foreign agents to engaging in a conspiracy to commit espionage, the Cubans, known at home as “the Five Heroes,” received sentences from 15-years to life in prison.

While two of the agents, René González and Fernando González, served out their terms and returned to Cuba, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino remain behind bars.

The logical formula for securing Mr. Gross’s release – a prisoner exchange covering the three Cuban agents – is hardly a state secret. As the New York Times said in its editorial, “A Prisoner Swap With Cuba,”

“The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that criteria.”

Hardliners call negotiating with Cuba to free Mr. Gross “appeasement.” As Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) has said, “Cuba is a state-sponsor of terrorism. We should not be trying to barter with them. We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants.”

In explaining its opposition to a swap, the State Department says, “We’ve always made it clear that there’s no equivalence between an international development worker … and convicted Cuban intelligence agents.”

Well, to paraphrase President Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of the word “equivalent” is.

Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh argue in the Miami Herald today that the Gross and Cuban spy cases, while different, have greater similarities than our government admits:

“Both Gross and the Cuban spies were acting as agents of their respective governments – sent by those governments into hostile territory to carry out covert operations in violation of the other country’s laws. In both cases, their governments bear responsibility for their predicament and have a moral obligation to extricate them from it.”

To end the stalemate, LeoGrande and Kornbluh call for a “parallel humanitarian exchange,” based on deals between Cuba and the U.S. during the Kennedy and Carter administrations that led to the release of 31 Americans, including several CIA agents. One can easily see how an arrangement would work today.

For its part, the White House did not use the phrase “unconditional release” in its statement on Wednesday, but instead observed, “The Cuban government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.” A reciprocal humanitarian gesture would involve President Obama commuting the sentences for the remaining Cubans prisoners to time served.

In the end, the humanitarian concerns that bind the Gross and Cuban agents’ cases together define their equivalence. It is their common humanity that should motivate Cuba and the U.S. to set aside ideological differences and assert their nation’s vital interests in a bilateral negotiation that reunites all four prisoners with their families.

There are no known alternative solutions; no other ways to avoid further diplomatic drift that can only end in human tragedy. Not the equivalent of a tragedy, but the real thing.


“Change Cuba Policy or Give China its Money Back” 

As President Obama ponders changes in Cuba policy and as democracy protests in Hong Kong continue, a new video and petition call for an end to the double-standards that defines the U.S. approach toward China and Cuba.

The effort, sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), focuses on the trip to China that Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen permitted their top staffers to take with expenses picked up by China’s government.

The Tampa Bay Times broke the story in late August, which was confirmed by both congressional offices.

Senator Rubio and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen criticize China and Cuba for their human rights practices, and both cite human rights abuses as a top reason why they oppose travel by Americans to Cuba. Yet, neither explained why they support travel to China by their staffs paid for by the Chinese government.

The video poses a simple choice to the legislators: “If they support travel to countries like China, they should end the ban on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba. And if they won’t support our right to visit Cuba freely, then they should pay the Chinese government back for the cost of their staffers’ trips.”

In a statement accompanying the release of the video and petition, Sarah Stephens, executive director of the non-profit organization, said, “CDA believes strongly that engagement is the best path to addressing human rights, and that is why we support travel to China just as we support travel to Cuba. Our question to Senator Rubio and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is this: As human rights champions, how can you justify engagement with China while vehemently opposing travel to Cuba? We believe America’s foreign policy must be consistent and clear; when we apply a double standard, our voice loses credibility in the world.”

Watch the video and sign the petition here.

Jeb Bush speaks in favor of tightening embargo 

In a speech at the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, former Florida governor Jeb Bush doubled down on his support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba, The Miami Herald reports. “I would argue that, instead of lifting the embargo, we should consider strengthening it,” he said.

Bush, who is considering a presidential run in 2016, is often referred to as an “honorary Hispanic.” Carlos Gutierrez, who served the administration of President George W. Bush as Commerce Secretary and co-chair of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, once said that Governor Bush, “is just as Hispanic as everyone in this room, and maybe a little more.”

Before running for governor of Florida, Jeb Bush served as campaign manager for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in her successful 1989 special election bid to serve in Congress.


Panama formally invites Cuba to 2015 Americas Summit 

Panama’s government officially invited President Raúl Castro to join the seventh Summit of the Americas taking place in Panama next April, El Nuevo Herald reports. Ever since the first Summit in 1994, the U.S. has exercised de facto veto power on Cuba’s participation.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Friday that the U.S. would accept Cuba’s presence at the Summit, despite past reservations. “We certainly recognize Panama’s prerogative as the host of the 2015 summit to extend invitations to whomever it chooses,” she said.

QUESTION: […] If Cuba, which you have big complaints about on all of those issues, is invited and attends, can the conference be credible? Will the United States attend? Do you think that it —

MS. HARF: Well, certainly the conference can be credible and you know we attend these summits. We think they’re important. And what is important to us most of all, as I just said, is what’s discussed. And talking about human rights and democracy and all of these issues in the Americas, that should be a key part of this and that’s what we’re focused on.

QUESTION: So Cuban participation in this summit in Panama will not be — will not affect U.S. participation.

MS. HARF: Well, we don’t have details on U.S. participation yet. That’s the decision the White House will make. So for specifics, obviously I’d refer you them. But again, these are important fora, and what we are focused on is what is discussed as part of the summit.

QUESTION: Well, but — well, I’m not asking who specifically, whether it will be the President or someone else who goes. I’m just saying you – the U.S. will still participate even though Cuba has been —

MS. HARF: I have no reason to believe that we won’t, but again, the White House makes those decisions, and I’ll let them speak to that one.

Last September, Isabel de Saint Malo, Panama’s Foreign Minister, delivered an informal invitation to President Castro, prompting U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (NJ) to send a letter to Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela expressing “grave concern” about the decision.

The last Summit of the Americas, held in 2012, ended without a final declaration because of disagreement over Cuba’s exclusion. Several Latin American governments subsequently declared that they would boycott the 2015 Summit should Cuba be excluded.

FARC releases Colombian general, peace talks to resume 

The Guardian reports that the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group has released its high-profile captive, Colombian General Rubén Alzate and two of his compatriots, who were kidnapped two weeks ago in remote western Colombia. General Alzate had been traveling in civilian clothes, and the reasons for his trip remain unclear.

FARC and Colombian government negotiators met Tuesday to discuss the resumption of the peace talks that have been taking place in Havana since February 2012. “We consider the crisis over and announce that we have agreed that the next cycle of conversations will take place between the 10th and the 17th of December,” said a Cuban official.

Cuban doctor free of Ebola 

The condition of Felix Baez, a Cuban doctor who contracted Ebola while in Sierra Leone, has been declared free of the virus, reports Reuters. Though still weak, Baez is eating normally and will soon be discharged from the Geneva hospital where he was receiving treatment. “Tests confirmed the virus has disappeared from his body fluids and he will soon be released. Once this happens, Dr. Felix Baez Sarria will return to Cuba,” Granma announced.

He is the only Cuban healthcare worker known to have been infected of the 256 deployed in West Africa on six-month rotations to combat the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

Cuba winner of 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games 

Cuba has won the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games that took place this month in Veracruz, Mexico, teleSUR reports. With 123 gold medals, Cuban athletes were able to edge out Mexico, which came in second place with 115. Thirty-two countries participated in the regional event which is held every four years. U.S. sanctions prohibited Cuba from participating in the 2010 Games in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.


Cuba announces new private property rules 

EFE reports that new regulations have come into force on private transactions involving real estate. The new rules set a reference value for houses based on various attributes, including the number of bedrooms and location. The regulation is meant to prevent tax evasion on private real estate transactions, which were legalized in 2011, as part of ongoing efforts to stimulate Cuba’s economy and to address chronic housing shortages.

Economic growth more sluggish than expected 

Cuban officials announced lower-than-expected economic growth figures for 2014, which they attributed to lagging sugar and manufacturing industries, EFE reports. Marino Murillo, Minister of the Economy, estimates 1.3 percent growth this year, just over half the 2.2 percent previously projected. Minister Murillo expects improvements in efficiency, manufacturing, and attracting investment to net 4 percent GDP growth in 2015. The Cuban Cabinet is also in discussions on the critical process of currency reunification, the timeline of which remains uncertain.

Recommended Reading

Double Standards on Cuba … Again, Sarah Stephens, Just Americas: A Blog by LAWG

CDA Director Sarah Stephens urges readers to sign the new petition calling for an end to the double-standard of Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), who recently sent top staffers on a junket to China while still opposing U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel to Cuba.

The Cuban question, The Economist

The Economist calls the Cuba embargo a failure, urges President Obama to make significant reforms before the Summit of the Americas, and opposes the move in Congress to impose sanctions on Venezuela.

Ebola Control: the Cuban approach

Eight scholars and experts, including Peter Bourne and Gail Reed, have published an article in The Lancet, the world’s leading general medical journal, which explains why the Cuban health system is capable of responding to global crises quickly. They argue that the Cuban approach, with its emphasis on education and the transfer of knowledge to local physicians, should be a model for the world’s global health strategy going forward.

Cuba’s extraordinary global medical record shames the US blockade, Seumas Milne, The Guardian

Despite its scarce resources and relatively small size, Cuba has made the world’s largest contribution of medical personnel to the Ebola containment efforts in West Africa. That the U.S. continues its embargo against the island, Milne says, is shameful.

I was with Fidel Castro when JFK was assassinated, Jean Daniel, New Republic

Jean Daniel describes the unique experience of being with Fidel Castro on December 7, 1963 when news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination broke. Daniel details the subsequent candid and nuanced conversations with Castro, who at once mourned the loss of JFK and understood the implications of the tragedy for his own interests. Castro told Daniel, “For us Latin Americans, death is a sacred matter; not only does it mark the close of hostilities, but it also imposes decency, dignity, respect.”

Truman-Era National Emergency Haunts Cuba Policy, William LeoGrande, Huffington Post

Bill LeoGrande explains that the original legal justification for the U.S. embargo against Cuba was a state of emergency declaration made by President Truman ten years before Fidel Castro came into power.

OMG I Thought You Were Dead!, David Guggenheim, EcoWatch

Less affected by ocean pollution than its more-developed neighbors, Cuba is home to several species of coral that have gone extinct in other parts of the Caribbean. Among those species is the Elkhorn Coral, which EcoWatch contributor and marine conservation policy expert David Guggenheim thought had disappeared entirely before seeing one while diving 50 miles off Cuba’s coast.

Travel to Cuba Is Booming, Ernesto Londoño, The New York Times

Despite strict regulations that limit travel, over 90,000 U.S. citizens legally visited Cuba in 2012 and 2013 through people-to-people programs. These cultural exchanges were made legal in 2011 by President Obama and allow Americans to visit the island in tour groups with licensed people-to-people organizations.

Mr. Gross’ five long years, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Peters explains why Obama should negotiate Gross’ release. “A unilateral release would be wonderful. But in the covert operations business that’s a pie-in-the-sky option when an operative gets caught red-handed, regardless of the virtues we ascribe to his activity.”

Recommended Viewing

Why The New York Times wants America to open up to Cuba, Christiane Amanpour, CNN

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour, Ernesto Lodoño of the New York Times talks about what motivates him as he leads the paper’s editorial board project on changing Cuba policy.

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