US takes different approach in prisoner swap talks

Following Israel prisoner swaps that freed over 1000 for Schalit, Grapel, US rejects Cuban exchange offer to release "spy" Alan Gross.

alan gross_311 reuters (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
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.
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The US 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 prison.
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 told journalists.
The Americans in turn have publicly rejected any possibility of a swap for Gross, claiming he was convicted on trumped up charges.
“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 behind Gross.
“We are continuing to work on this at this time,” he said. “We are pressing all our contacts with the Cuban government.”
Ron Halber, 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.
“The government is not going to release the prisoners and possibly lose the state.”
Those expecting the sides to reach an Israel-style bargain anytime soon shouldn’t hold their breath, say most observers.
“Not that 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 Siegel-Vann.
“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 being.”