By Collin Laverty (*)
HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 10 — Following the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Fidel Castro and his Revolutionary government held over 1,000 CIA-trained Cuban exiles captive. The American-supported invaders were convicted of crimes against their homeland, and sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.
President Kennedy, facing tough domestic criticism for the failed overthrow of the Cuban government, was desperate to bring the exiles home to their families in South Florida. The White House quickly organized a fund-raising committee headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Milton Eisenhower and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther to round up funds and agriculture equipment to swap with Cuba for the return of the imprisoned exiles. The group was dubbed the Tractors for Freedom Committee.
Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and other vociferous conservatives were vehemently opposed to any negotiation and let their objections be heard, making the details of the deal harder to work out. When Castro requested the negotiations take place through face-to-face talks and not diplomatic cables the Tractors for Freedom initiative fell through. Castro responded with a simple request that would have saved the U.S. millions of dollars and sped up the liberation of the exile force: freedom for Pedro Albizu Campos.
Born in Puerto Rico, Pedro Albizu Campos fought for the United States in the First World War and then received his law degree from Harvard University. Albizu Campos, who was fluent in 8 languages, was offered various U.S. government positions, but troubled by the racism he experienced in the Army and at Harvard, he decided to return to Puerto Rico. Soon after, he joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which sought Puerto Rican independence, and eventually became the head of the independence movement.
Albizu Campos was in and out of jail his whole adult life as members of his Nationalist Party were routinely killed, tortured, arrested and harassed. He was arrested in 1950 after members of the Puerto Rican Nationalists attacked the Blair House in Washington, D.C., where President Harry S. Truman was staying at the time, despite the fact he was in Puerto Rico when the crime occurred. He was pardoned in 1953 by the Governor of Puerto Rico, but incarcerated again the following year when four members of his party fired shots into the chamber of the U.S. Capitol Building. He was also in Puerto Rico at the time of that crime.
Aside from fighting for the independence of his homeland, Albizu Campos was one of the first to make public the use of Puerto Ricans as chemical/medical test subjects for the U.S. government. He published a famous manuscript outlining how Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoades, who went on to serve on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was injecting patients with live cancer cells and carrying out other torturous experiments. Documents released under the Clinton Administration, along with assessments by doctors before his death, showed that Albizu Campos himself was the subject of human radiation experiments – aka torture – while he was in prison.
Castro had made things simple. The release of a Puerto Rican revolutionary jailed for trying to liberate his homeland (and the victim of U.S.-sponsored torture) for the release of over 1,000 exiles who had attempted to end his revolution and take back their homeland. As a Time Magazine article at the time expressed, the U.S. and its citizens were trying to find a “method for serving humanitarian instincts while at the same time preserving national honor.”
Cold War hawks argued releasing Albizu Campos or other negotiated settlements would be a “sign of weakness” and a “concession to the dictator,” phrases still common on Capitol Hill and in South Florida today. Eventually the Kennedy Administration sided with the families of imprisoned exiles and sent over $50 million worth of food and medicine to Cuba in exchange for the return of its defeated exile-force.
Unclear whether Gross was aware of the risks?
When Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor, was arrested in Havana a little over a year ago those familiar with U.S. – Cuba relations quickly identified a way for the Obama Administration to get Gross back, make up for leaving President Bush’s Cuba policy on cruise control and rapidly move the bilateral relationship to a much better place.
When arrested in Cuba, Mr. Gross was traveling on a tourist visa despite working as an “independent business and economic development consultant” to Development Alternatives, Inc., a U.S. Government contractor that hired him with part of the $8.6 million contract they received from USAID for “democracy promotion” in Cuba.
Under the administration of George W. Bush the budget for USAID’s Cuba program swelled to $45 million per year, despite the fact that government oversight reports had found that much of the money had actually been stolen and misused, including for the purchase of Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters and video games for dissidents in Cuba and exile groups in Miami.
Following the uproar about theft, favoritism and ineffectiveness involved in the program, funds were mainly transferred from small exile-based NGOS in Miami to large-scale development agencies, like DAI, capable of running secretive missions through subcontracting work out to individuals and smaller organizations willing to take the risk of operating like covert agents on Cuban soil. Unlike any true development programs at USAID, funding requests and grants for the Cuba program are kept secretive.
Funding for democracy promotion in Cuba is tied to U.S. legislation that calls for regime change in Havana, and the Cuban government has responded with legislation of its own. Cuba’s penal code provides a prison term of three to eight years for Cubans on the island who “participate in the distribution of financial . . . or other resources that come from the United States government, its agencies, subordinates, representatives, functionaries, or private entities.” In each of President Obama’s State Department budget requests thus far he has asked for and received $20 million for Cuba – the amount recommended by a Bush “Cuba Transition Team” tasked with planning the fall of the Castros and the reconstruction to follow.
In other words, Obama chose to continue a program focused on regime change, which is counterproductive, antagonistic, and puts the integrity and safety of those involved, on and off the island, at risk. It’s unclear if Gross, who has apparently set up high-tech communications devices across the globe, was aware of the risk involved in the program.
Now, on to the other side of the equation.
Five Cuban intelligence officers, known as the Cuban Five, have been in U.S. jails for over 10 years after a politicized trial in Miami resulted in their conviction for espionage-related activities. Their return to Cuba is a top priority for the Cuban government.
Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González came to the United States to monitor violent Cuban exile groups in Miami that had long planned and carried out attacks on Cuba from safe haven in South Florida. Despite the fact that the group was not carrying out surveillance on U.S. government officials or establishments, and never accessed or attempted to access any confidential information – the aim of espionage – they were tried for various crimes related to spying. A motion to move the trial away from Cuban exile-dominated Miami was denied and the legal process soon became a ruling on Castro and communism and not on the merits of the accusations.
Not surprisingly, the five men – considered heroes in Cuba for helping to prevent terrorist attacks on the island – were convicted and given long sentences, which were later determined by a Court of Appeals to be too excessive, but only slightly reduced. Before, during and after the trial, the five Cuban agents were spread out in jails in different corners of the country, frequently kept in solitary confinement and routinely denied visits by their family members. Amnesty International has repeatedly questioned the “fairness and impartiality of the trial,” as well as their treatment in jail, as have other respected human rights and law groups.
The Cuban Government has made clear that it is willing to enter into talks with the United States without preconditions, but bringing the Cuban Five home is clearly at the top of its checklist for a path towards normal relations. President Raul Castro had previously expressed his willingness to send jailed Cuban dissidents and their families to the United States in exchange for the Five.
Senator Goldwater is no longer with us, but the anti-communist fervor he exhibited at the beginning of his career (he became more sensible as time went on) has been replaced by a handful of House and Senate Cuban-American lawmakers who quickly protested rumors of a deal in the making. Thanks to aggressive opposition by the likes of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a prisoner exchange deal swapping Gross for the Cuban Five was squashed before the two sides even explored it.
Aside from the fact that reuniting Mr. Gross and the Cuban Five with their families and their homelands is the right thing to do, a prisoner exchange is in the strategic interests of the United States. Miscalculating the political situation in South Florida, President Obama has sought advice from political advisors rather than foreign policy advisors on Cuba, and has only taken timid steps change a failed policy toward Cuba.
The recent changes making it easier for academic, religious and other “purposeful” travel to Cuba to take place appears to be the result of assurances from Havana that Gross will soon make his way back across the Florida Straits. Increased travel to Cuba and Gross’ return is good for both countries. However, a return of the Cuban Five would have helped the Obama Administration minimize the black eye the Gross case has and will cause, repair the U.S. image in the region and moved bilateral progress swiftly in the right direction.
Gross faces upcoming trial
It was announced last week that Gross’ case will soon go to trial, and that he is being tried “for the crime of ‘Actions Against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State,’” with prosecutors seeking a 20-year sentence. A lawyer for Gross welcomed the announcement, saying the fact the case is finally moving forward after a year is a positive development.
It appears that despite the potential 20 years in jail, Gross’ legal team and family are under the impression a deal has been struck and he’ll be home soon. This will not spare the Obama Administration the embarrassment of evidence provided at trial, which is bound to prove the covert nature of U.S. democracy programs in Cuba, and perhaps, the fact that the U.S. has been distorting the truth about what Gross was doing in Cuba since his arrest.
The White House and State Department first claimed Gross was teaching Cubans how to use Wikipedia and passing out thumb drives, then later began to steadfastly claim it was actually Jewish groups he was helping to provide technical assistance to. The story doesn’t add up for several reasons. First, the leaders of Cuba’s Jewish communities have all said they know nothing about Gross and have never met him.
Second, of all the religious or ethnic community groups on the island, the Jews, who have thousands of Jewish Americans visit on humanitarian trips each year, are better equipped and more technologically savvy than any others. They don’t need the help. Third, the fact that USAID would contract a man with extensive experience in setting up sophisticated satellite equipment in remote areas of the world – including friendly and unfriendly countries – to pass out thumb drives and do Wikipedia training makes no sense. That being said, the Obama Administration has continued to claim Gross was carrying out routine activities with Cuba’s Jewish community, whom deny ever meeting him.
Cuba has shown in the past that it has good intelligence gathering capabilities and it thoroughly documents its surveillance. One can imagine that what Alan Gross was doing and with whom will be clearly laid out in a trial that will have a domestic and international audience.
Continuity between Bush and Obama on Latin America has frustrated the region, and nowhere is a lack of change more evident than policy toward Cuba. The former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who Obama previously referred to as “my man in the region,” recently noted that “nothing has changed” in relations between the U.S. and Latin America.
Opportunity for dialogue, negotiation and prisoner swaps is not new. President Kennedy refused to make a quick deal to secure the release of Bay of Pigs survivors held in Cuba, increasing the domestic criticism he faced for the blotched invasion and making it harder to negotiate a settlement in the end. It appears that the Obama Administration has not learned from Kennedy’s mistakes – or the other 10 President’s that have mishandled Revolutionary Cuba before him.
Sending the Cuban Five home in exchange for Alan Gross would have saved the U.S. the embarrassment of the upcoming trial, won a great deal of goodwill in a region where many see policy toward Cuba as a litmus test for change, and opened up a much wider possibility for real change between the U.S. and Cuba. Perhaps some of these issues have been discussed in backdoor dialogue and can be addressed in the future. For the families and compatriots of Alan, Gerardo, Ramón, Antonio, Fernando and René let’s hope so. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for information on the Gross trial. It should be interesting.
(*) Collin Laverty is an MPIA candidate at UC – San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.