Gross injustice

The American response to Gross’s arrest and conviction in Cuba has been long on talk, but short on actions.

alan gross_311 reuters (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
alan gross_311 reuters
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
Last Friday, Cuba’s top court rejected the appeal of an American Jew sentenced to 15 years in prison for distributing satellite communications equipment and laptops to Cuba’s Jewish community – an act Cuban prosecutors charged was part “of a subversive project to try to topple the revolution.”
It is illegal under Cuban law to bring such equipment into the country without a permit. Alan P. Gross, 62, of Potomac, Maryland, has been held since his arrest at Havana’s airport in December 2009.
Gross was sent to Cuba as a contractor by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help set up a communications center for the tiny Jewish community in Havana. According to official Cuban figures, only 3 percent of Cubans regularly use the Internet.
By all accounts, Gross is a committed veteran development worker, and has done humanitarian work for USAID in Kenya, Gambia, and the Palestinian territories (where he helped dairy farmers).
USAID has said that Gross was chosen because of his “strong expertise in sustainable development approaches, experience working in difficult environments and understanding of technological approaches to strengthening civil society.”
The USAID initiative was part of a broader American democracy promotion project, outlined by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which calls for support of Cuban NGOs under the rubric of “democracy-building.” The 2011 budget for the US State Department allocates $20 million to “promote self-determined democracy in Cuba.” Obviously, Cuba’s Communist authoritarians – whose control depends on keeping their subjects in the information dark ages – could not be expected to welcome such an enterprise.
“There is a new institution in the United States,” parliamentary leader Ricardo Alarcón said, “which is made up of agents, torturers and spies that are contracted as part of the privatization of war.” Referring to Gross, Alarcón added, “This is a man who was contracted to do work for American intelligence services.”
Such blatantly trumped-up charges represent another move in the Castro regime’s decades-old game of brinkmanship with the United States, very likely an attempt to use Gross as a bargaining chip to gain the release of five Cuban spies convicted in 2005 of espionage in the US. The spies, known as the “Cuban Five,” are national heroes in Cuba.
The American response to Gross’s arrest and conviction, meanwhile, has been long on talk, but short on actions.
On the one hand, the administration has publicly condemned the Cuban move and has sent delegations to meet with the prisoner.
“We have made it very clear to the Cuban government that the continued detention of Alan Gross is a major impediment to advancing the dialogue between our two countries,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in December.
In a visit to the island nation in late March, former president Jimmy Carter met with Gross, but was unable to secure his release.
“The Cuban officials made it very clear to me before I left my home that the freedom of Alan Gross would not be granted,” Carter said.
In addition, members of a visiting US delegation – including Donna Brazile, David Dreyer and former Congresswoman Jane Harman – met with Gross in June.
At the same time, in January, as Gross sat in jail, the Obama administration – pressured by business and agriculture lobbies – announced plans to loosen Cuban travel restrictions that have been in place since 1959 and allow more airports to offer charter service. Annual US farm sales to Cuba grew steadily through 2008, peaking at more than $700 million.
Having already served 21 months in prison, Gross has suffered enough. He has lost 100 pounds. His older daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer. His continued incarceration is unjust, and the US government is not entirely helpless in ending it.
It should be abundantly clear by now that easing the American embargo will not persuade the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, to release their political pawn.
Now that Gross has exhausted his legal options, the Obama administration should make clear that the relaxation of travel restrictions will be reversed and any further concessions imperiled if he is not immediately and unconditionally freed.