I just returned from a week in Cuba on a people-to-people exchange tour to meet
with members of Jewish communities in several cities and to learn about the
It has intrigued me that this weak and crumbling country has the
mighty United States so terrified that we would rather deal with Vietnam, North
Korea, Syria and Iran before talking to the Castro regime. Much is the result of
politicians of both parties who fear the disproportionate power wielded by a
small but influential and vindictive émigré community, primarily in South
Fidel Castro, 85, is in failing health and has turned over the
presidency to his brother, Raul, 80. The Castro era is over, we heard from
academics and others we met, and the country is entering a period of transition;
the Americans are very likely to miss an opportunity to help shape the future
because our policy is driven by forces more concerned with revenge on the
Castros and getting back property lost in the 1959 revolution.
Cuba is a
failed state with a deteriorating economy and infrastructure. It is said that
three buildings collapse every day in Havana. More than half a century after the
revolution, Cubans still have food rationing and extensive shortages of
essential commodities including medicines.
Participants in Jewish
missions are asked to bring such basic staples as medicines, toiletries,
toothpaste, soap, first aid kits, as well as sports equipment, musical
instrument and art supplies, dance shoes and attire for children. Medicines of
any kind go to the Patranato, the large Havana synagogue which operates a
Many people can’t get electricity around the clock.
The plumbing is often in disrepair and unreliable. The government controls the
media and there is no independent news coverage. Only the hotels for foreign
tourists and the few Cubans with power and money can get foreign cable news; CNN
and China’s CCTV broadcast English and Spanish channels, when it is
Internet service is rare, antiquated, expensive, tightly
controlled and at the heart of a Cuban-American dispute that involves Jewish
communities in both countries.
Alan Gross, from the Washington suburb of
Potomac, Maryland, was a subcontractor hired by the US Agency for International
Development as part of an American initiative to promote democracy by bringing
computer and communications equipment for the Cuban Jewish community.
made five trips in 2009 – the year after the ban on ownership of computers and
mobile phones was lifted – until he was arrested as he prepared to leave on
December 3 and charged with bringing in electronic equipment without the
required Cuban government permits.
He had traveled that year with several
missions sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, asking
participants to put small items like modems, cables, cell phones in the carry-on
bags – but not checked luggage where it might be inspected – and return it to
him after leaving the airport. Gross brought the larger items and apparently had
no trouble getting them into the country. Their bus would drop him at his hotel
and they wouldn’t see him again until boarding their return flights.
they found out about Gross’s arrest, some of those who had helped him and been
assured there was no risk, felt they’d been needlessly put at risk.
I arrived in Cuba earlier this month I had to fill out a customs form asking
whether I was bringing in satellite or other communications equipment. I was
Gross was accused of attempting to “undermine the integrity and
independence” of Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
President Raul Castro told two visiting US senators in February that Gross “was
no spy,” but he refused the request of Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and
Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) to let them take him home.
with Cubans I met – no government officials, per se, but all meetings had to be
approved by the government – left no doubt that the real motivation behind
Gross’s arrest was very likely a swap for five Cuban intelligence agents serving
prison sentences in the United States.
One of those Cubans, Rene
Gonzalez, was paroled and allowed to return to Cuba for 15 days to visit his
terminally ill brother, prompting efforts to persuade the Cubans to reciprocate
by letting Gross visit his mother, 90, who has inoperable lung cancer, and his
daughter who has breast cancer. There was hope that both men would be able to
stay at home and not return, but the Castro government refused. Gonzales
returned to Florida this week.
Gross, who gets one phone call a week,
used last week’s to contact NBC’s Andrea Mitchell with a simple plea, “Get me
the hell out of here.” He told her, as his family and friends continue to
insist, “I did nothing legally or morally wrong.”
The Cubans have
suggested a five-for-one swap, which under standards set by the Israeli
government in exchanging a single prisoner for over a thousand terrorists,
doesn’t seem like much. But the Cuban Five, who were convicted of conspiracy to
commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder and other crimes, are symbolically
more important to both governments.
A swap for Gross would be popular in
the Jewish community but not in the Cuban-American community, which rails
against any deals with the “terrorist regime” in Havana, especially since it
could mean handing the Castros a major propaganda victory.
extolling the five as heroes are seen around Cuba and their giant-size portraits
are on the memorial to revolutionary hero Che Guevara. And in this volatile
political year, where Florida’s electoral votes could be decisive, a swap is
highly unlikely. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely the Cubans will send Alan Gross
home any time soon.
Like relations between the two countries, he is being
held hostage to outmoded, counterproductive and politically motivated