Time for Obama to get Alan Gross out of prison
As USAID subcontractor Alan Gross begins his sixth year of incarceration
in Cuba, the Obama administration continues to resist the one obvious
way to win his freedom — a humanitarian exchange for three Cuban spies
who have been in U.S. jails for over 16 years.
“There’s no equivalency,” Secretary of State John Kerry insisted last
April. “We’re not going to trade as if its spy for spy.” A Department of
State spokesperson reiterated that position again this week on the fifth
anniversary of Gross’ arrest.
With Alan Gross’ life at stake, as well as the ability of the White
House to advance U.S. interests in better relations with Cuba, President
Obama should reconsider this self-defeating position.
To be sure, the missions of Alan Gross and the so-called “Cuban Five”
(now three, since two were released after completing their
sentences)were not equivalent. The Cubans were intelligence agents, part
of an espionage network that targeted Homestead Air Force Base and
Cuban-American exile groups that Cuba suspected of orchestrating a wave
of terrorist bombings in Havana tourist hotels.
By contrast, Alan Gross was not a professional spy, but a USAID
subcontractor carrying out a democracy promotion program which had the
explicit goal of undermining the Cuban regime. He was arrested while
setting up secret, independent, communications networks to enable Cuban
groups to obtain, receive and disseminate information via encrypted
satellite links to the Internet. The goal of his mission, according to
Gross’ own USAID work proposal, was to “identify practical ways to
develop and reach a larger pro-Democracy constituency.”
Although Gross and the Cubans had different missions, their cases are
nevertheless equivalent in other ways. Both Gross and the Cuban spies
were acting as agents of their respective governments — sent by those
governments into hostile territory to carry out covert operations in
violation of the other country’s laws. In both cases, their governments
bear responsibility for their predicament and have a moral obligation to
extricate them from it.
And in both cases, the trials and sentences meted out were less than
models of due process. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary
Detention reviewed the two cases separately and found fault with both
Finally there is a humanitarian equivalence: Alan Gross has been in
prison for five years, the Cubans for 16. On the anniversary of Gross’
arrest, the White House called for his release on “humanitarian
grounds.” The Cuban government has been calling for the humanitarian
release of its agents, too, suggesting “parallel gestures” in the two cases.
Should President Obama agree to such “humanitarian gestures” he would
have the support of history on his side. Despite Secretary Kerry’s
suggestion that Washington only trades “spies for spies,” U.S.
presidents have conducted nonequivalent prisoner exchanges with Cuba in
In 1963, for example, the Kennedy administration negotiated the release
of 27 imprisoned Americans, among them three CIA agents. In return,
Kennedy ordered the release of four Cubans, one convicted of second
degree murder for accidentally shooting and killing a nine-year-old girl
during a brawl with anti-Castro exiles, and other three arrested in
possession of weapons and explosives, charged with conspiracy to commit
In 1979, President Carter granted clemency to four Puerto Rican
nationalists. Three of them, including Lolita Lebrón, had been convicted
of attempted murder for an attack inside the House of Representatives in
1954, wounding five members; the fourth attempted to assassinate
President Harry Truman in 1950, during which a White House police
officer was killed. Eleven days after their release, Fidel Castro set
free four CIA agents imprisoned for plotting to assassinate Cuban
leaders — completing his side of an informal agreement for a parallel
In their day, the cases of the Cuban saboteurs and Puerto Rican
nationalists were just as prominent — and just as politically sensitive—
as the case of the Cuban Five. Yet two U.S. presidents saw the wisdom of
those exchanges to win the release of U.S. agents jailed in Cuba and
advance broader U.S. foreign policy interests.
They set a historical precedent for President Obama to follow. The
approach President Obama has pursued for five years — insisting that
Alan Gross did nothing wrong, and that the Cubans release him
unconditionally — has utterly failed. The Cuban government has proven to
be just as adamant about winning the release of its people as we are
about winning the release of ours.
With Alan Gross increasingly suicidal because his government has done so
little to free him, time is running out for a positive resolution for
“They are in prison now because I f—ked up,” President Kennedy famously
told his aides about the members of Brigade 2506 captured after the Bay
of Pigs as he authorized efforts to negotiate their release. “I have to
get them out.” Obama has the same obligations to Alan Gross. It is time
for the president to get him out.
WILLIAM M. LEOGRANDE AT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY AND PETER KORNBLUH AT THE
NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE ARE CO-AUTHORS OF THE NEW BOOK, “BACK CHANNEL
TO CUBA: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES
Source: Time for Obama to get Alan Gross out of prison | The Miami
Herald – http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article4281649.html