Home for Hanukka

Purely from a humanitarian standpoint, Alan Gross should be allowed to go home.

alan gross_311 reuters (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
alan gross_311 reuters
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
Last year, Havana’s Bet Shalom synagogue celebrated Hanukka in an odd, some might say, discordant, fashion. The guest of honor was Cuba’s President Raul Castro. Sporting a suit and a yarmulke, Castro was honored with the lighting of the first candle.
Befitting the sort of fear-society that Cuba has become under four decades of Raul and Fidel Castro’s dictatorship – and sharply contrasting with Hanukka’s celebration of Jewish bravery – no one in the Jewish community dared mention Alan Gross during the festivities, which were broadcast on state TV as propaganda extolling Havana’s benevolent treatment of Jews. But Gross was the elephant in the room.
This Saturday, Gross, 62, will mark two years behind bars for an act viewed in the free world as laudable. Gross tried to bring Internet to Cuba’s Jewish community of about 1,500 so that they could have free access to information.
He was sent to Cuba by United States Agency for International Development.
The USAID initiative is 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.”
Havana tightly controls Internet access, in a futile attempt to prevent its citizens from knowing the truth about Castro’s failed human project. It, therefore, viewed Gross’s activities as tantamount to an attempt to topple the regime.
The distance is great between Havana’s trumped-up charges of subversion and the reality that Gross is a veteran social worker and promoter of democracy and freedom whose only “crime” appears to be naiveté.
Over the past 25 years, Gross has traveled the world promoting freedom and democracy in places such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and has done humanitarian work for USAID in Kenya and Gambia, and in Judea and Samaria (where he helped Palestinian dairy farmers). He is no rabble rouser. Yet he was held without trial for months.
Eventually, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Why has Gross been punished so severely? It seems he is being held as a bargaining chip by Havana, which wants to see the release from US custody of the “Cuban Five” who were convicted for spying on American military installations in South Florida. In October, AP reported that the US was willing to allow Rene Gonzalez, one of the Cuban Five who was recently released from prison, to serve his three remaining years of probation in Cuba rather than in Florida, in exchange for the release of Gross. Cuba rejected the offer, noting that Gonzalez had already served most of his sentence.
The Castro regime demanded clemency for the other members of the Cuban Five.
But even if Cuba had accepted, there were several problematic aspects to the deal. According to AP, the US was willing, among other things, to discuss removing Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and to consider reducing spending on Cuban democracy-promotion programs like the one with which Gross was involved. If the deal had gone through, it would have set a dangerous precedent in which by using kidnapped US citizens, repressive regimes could force the US to back down on basic principles such as democracy promotion and the war against terrorism.
In any event it is doubtful that in an election year the Obama administration would reach a deal with Havana that would risk angering the powerful Cuban community in Florida, an important swing state.
Unfortunately, cracking down on Cuba by, say, blocking Cuban artists and musicians from performing in the US, or other forms of economic sanctions not already in place, might only further harden an already intransigent Havana.
Meanwhile, Gross’s physical situation is deteriorating.
He has lost 100 pounds (45 kg.) and suffers from arthritis.
Of more concern, however, is Gross’s worsening psychological state.
Purely from a humanitarian standpoint Gross should be allowed to go home. This Hanukka Gross should be allowed to light candles with his family in America.
Nothing that the US can do will ever force the Castro regime to let Gross go. But perhaps compassion will win out. Such a simple and just act is, after all, the right thing to do.