alan gross_311 reuters.
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
Last month Israel made headlines around the world when it agreed to free over
1,000 Palestinian and Egyptian prisoners for two of its citizens, Gilad Schalit
and Ilan Grapel. It wasn’t the first time the Jewish State agreed to such a
lopsided exchange: over the past decades Israel and its foes have reached
several similar agreements. But on the matter of prisoner swaps the US toes a
very different line.
Talks between Washington and Havana hit a wall last
month when the Caribbean nation demanded the release of five of its citizens
serving sentences in US prisons for Alan Gross, a Jewish-American contractor
serving a 15- year prison sentence in Cuba for subversion.
Petition launches to free Alan Gross from Cuba
response was swift and uncompromising: “I will certainly say unequivocally that
the US is not considering the release of any member of the Cuban Five in
exchange,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland was quoted as saying by
AFP. “[Gross] is not a spy, and it is simply not comparable with the crimes of
the Cuban Five in any way.”
The Cuban Five are members of a spy ring
arrested in Florida in 1998 and convicted of espionage and conspiracy to murder,
among other charges. During their trials, the defendants admitted to gathering
information on the Cuban community in Florida on behalf of the government in
Havana but denied spying on the US military. They were sentenced to
varying prison terms, from 15 years to life.
Cuban authorities arrested
Gross in December 2009 for bringing satellite phones into the country without
permission. Gross, who was sent to the island nation by USAID, a
government-relief agency, said the phones were intended to be part of a
communications center for Cuba’s Jewish community. In March of 2010 a Cuban
judge convicted him of subversion sentencing the Maryland native to 15 years in
Over the past several months Cuba has made clear the conditions
under which it would consider releasing Gross, tying his fate together with that
of the Cuban Five.
The US government “should get a good armchair and sit
down to wait” if it expected the 61-year-old prisoner to be released on
humanitarian grounds, the Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon recently
The Americans in turn have publicly rejected any
possibility of a swap for Gross, claiming he was convicted on trumped up
“There’s an impasse at the moment,” said Dina Siegel- Vann, the
director of the Latino and Latin American Institute at the American Jewish
Committee on Tuesday.
“There was a lot of hope that after the trial and
appeals over the trial that they would release him on humanitarian grounds
because of the situation his family is going through and his own health, but
that hasn’t happened.”
Despite the current deadlock, Malcolm Hoenlein,
the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American
Jewish Organizations, said the Jewish community in the US remained mobilized
“We are continuing to work on this at this time,” he said.
“We are pressing all our contacts with the Cuban government.”
executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater
Washington, the region where Gross is from, said it recently delivered an online
petition to authorities in Havana calling for his release.
“Our goal was
to collect several thousand signatures and surprisingly we had 12,000 that were
presented to the Cubans prior to the Jewish High Holidays,” Halber said.
“There’s been no reaction from them so far.”
Meanwhile, both sides seem
to be digging into their positions. The upcoming presidential elections makes it
even less likely that the US will change its position about releasing the Cuban
spies, one observer said.
“This is an election year and Cubans are a big
vote in Florida,” said a Jewish official who asked not to be named.
government is not going to release the prisoners and possibly lose the
Those expecting the sides to reach an Israel-style bargain
anytime soon shouldn’t hold their breath, say most observers.
the US has no concern for its citizens – I know for a fact that the State
Department has knocked on every door to get him released,” said
“But Israel has its own special philosophy regarding its
citizens and that is not going to be happening here in the US for the time