Obama and the Difficult Alan Gross Case

…but not impossible to resolve.

By Esteban Morales*

US agent Alan Gross in Havana during a trip before his arrest.

HAVANA TIMES — Those who heralded progress in US policy towards Cuba with Obama now seem to have stalled.

Obama had split the blockade in half, doing away the measures that George W. Bush had taken against Cuba in terms of remittances, travel, visas, package shipments, etc. while still preserving it as an aggressive instrument against the Cuban government.

Two things seemed to be at stake: conceding better conditions to civil society on both sides for family exchanges, and maintaining the blockade as a source of pressure against the island’s government. It didn’t seem to be a definitive measure, but rather a first step in gaging the behavior it would elicit from Cuba.

Despite pressure from the Cuban-American conservatives, the positive measures have stayed in place, but Obama persists in using the blockade, considering that it may be more effective now that Cuba is in the middle of a transition towards a new economic model. Simultaneously, it appears that he wants to be seen as a hardliner by those who want to maintain an aggressive policy toward Cuba.

In this sense, although he implemented a somewhat more intelligent policy, Obama doesn’t appear to be any less captive of US politics’ conservative forces than previous presidents. With the right-wing Republicans trying to regain control in 2016, Obama, like any president in his second term, must do everything possible to leave an unobstructed path for his party’s future candidate.

According to the US administration, an insurmountable obstacle has appeared that hinders any progress [in US-Cuba relations]:  the detention of Allen Gross. The administration openly declares this as its political priority with Cuba.

But does the Gross problem have enough influence for Obama to sacrifice what seemed to be his initial political strategy towards Cuba? Most importantly, does it wield as much influence as some would like it to? I think it doesn’t, and that Obama is driving himself into a corner.

It’s not difficult to remember all the times the United States has set obstacles in the way of progressing on political issues concerning Cuba. Now it looks like the condition to continue moving forward, perhaps towards better relations, is that Cuba unconditionally hand over Allan Gross.

Workers. Photo: Caridad

This position will undoubtedly complicated things once more, because Cuba has never accepted any conditions from the United States’ in order to negotiate. Even in the worst, most dangerous moments of the confrontation between both countries over more than 50 years, putting things in such arrogant terms never brought any solutions, as any US administration can recall.

Let’s take a closer look at the present obstacle, which, according to Obama, is standing in the way of bettering relations.

Cuba must return Allan Gross unconditionally, and the proposal to exchange Gross for the Cuban Five is not considered at possibility.

This stance is not based on anything but the haughtiness with which the United States has always tried negotiating with Cuba, and which has been a constant characteristic of the US’ behavior since the beginning of the confrontation. Due to the following reasons:

1- The Obama administration hired Gross to complete certain assignments in Cuba that, now Gross even admits, he shouldn’t have undertaken. Even if he presents himself as having been deceived.

2- The administration insists that nothing about Gross’ activities warranted his detainment or his 15-year prison sentence.

3- Ostensibly the United States insists that Gross should be freed because Cuba’s actions against him are illegal. What would the United States say if things had been the other way around?

4- Up until now, the administration has refused to discuss freeing the Cuban Five in exchange for Allen Gross. Some have even gone as far as to consider this exchange mathematically impossible, seeing as five don’t equal one.

In fact, Obama finds himself at a complete disadvantage in this confrontation. There are tons of documents, and many declarations from members of the United States justice system that show how the Cuban Five case was, and will remain, a stain in US justice that must be removed.

It is widely known that the Cuban Five were convicted after an illegitimate, sham trial with extremely exaggerated sentences for reasons that are impossible to prove –that still haven’t been proven–, which goes against legal precedence, a key rule in United States law.

As if this weren’t enough, information has circulated, in addition to several complaints, about the US government’s refusal to declassify materials that would reveal even more about the sham trial.

They will return. Photo: Caridad

Obama’s administration is denying something that has become completely obvious. By freeing the Cuban Five, the United States could get rid of the tarnished reputation that this conviction has brought upon the US justice system.

In fact, by freeing them, the US wouldn’t be losing anything, only gaining. Many people around the world contest the trial, and many important personalities have addressed the President directly asking for freedom for the Cuban Five.

As for Cuba, it wouldn’t lose anything by freeing Allan Gross either, though certainly not under the conditions imposed by the United States. While freeing the Cuban Five would represent a moral rectification for the United States, for Cuba, freeing Allan Gross under Obama’s conditions would be a threat to national security because it would allow the United States to feel it had the right to demand that Cuba always act in terms of US interests.

The process has come to a standstill because if something has become clear thanks to this confrontation, it’s that the United States can always use the fact that its demands were met to move the goal post. Instead of indicating political maturity, being sensible is interpreted as a sign of cowardice by US imperialist political logic.

However, there are several other complex matters for the Unites States to consider, although the Obama administration has apparently not decided whether or not to consider them yet. They are as follows:

  1. Though Allan Gross currently receives all the assistance a 60-year-old man could need in Cuba, things could get complicated if Gross were to get sick and die on the island. Cuba would certainly lose its gambling chip, but it would be impossible for Obama to justify turning something into a matter of principles when it just isn’t. In addition, he alone would have to bear the responsibility for his administration having sent Gross to Cuba—the same administration that is now conditioning his release.
  2. Gross’ family, and especially his wife, rightly believe that if the US government sent Allan Gross to Cuba, it’s their responsibility to get him out.
  3. The Obama administration, and the President himself, should approach this case more intelligently, without trying to impose conditions that Cuba will never accept, but especially to keep the situation from getting more complicated, which could mean it may be too late by the time a possible solution is found.

The argument put forth by the United States government, especially by members of the United States Congress, refusing to trade one for five, is simply dumb arithmetic, and has nothing to do with the serious political problem at hand.

The Allan Gross case is certainly not an easy one. The President’s predicament is understandable, but it would be enough to disregard the preconceptions and manipulations surrounding the Cuban Five case, and fully investigate to gather all the information necessary to make a decision that would take into account the injustices that were suffered, and the fact that these men never put US national security in danger.

Releasing the Cuban Five would become an ethical deed, amending a wrong judgment. In terms of Cuba, freeing Allan Gross would simply become a gesture of good faith. Then, it would be possible to make progress.

Faced with the case of Elian Gonzales, a much more complicated problem, Clinton’s administration understood that Cuba was right, acknowledged the amount of prestige the United States would gain, and finally made the correct decision.

Of course, determining what to do about the Cuban Five is not the same, especially when faced with the preconceptions –justified or not– of US public opinion, but Obama shouldn’t let simplistic preconceptions guide him, and should make a decision based on objective facts in a situation that actually does have a solution, if the US acts with political maturity instead of arrogance.

Especially if Obama acknowledges, as he has on several occasions, that this obstacle is what is keeping him from further advancing his plans with Cuba.

(*) See Esteban Morales’ blog (in spanish).



11 thoughts on “Obama and the Difficult Alan Gross Case

  • How about throwing in Joanne Chesimard, William Morales, William Potts, and/or several other of the 70+ fugitives that are currently residing in Cuba under the protection of the Castro regime?

  • What POTUS should be doing is lifting the embargo and the the US GOV would not have a need to send as many spies in as they do

  • The how and why of an event matters, and if the media gives a distorted version of facts to the public in order to advance an agenda, is the responsibility of the public to get better sources of information.

    The fact that they did not authorize a military response is not a good reason to support the enactment of the Helms Burton act, that situation was NOT a dichotomy and there were other possibilities, like actually investigate the incident, realize that what the “Brothers to the rescue” did was illegal and removing the FAA license to the survivors.

    As for the second part of your argument, regardless of who you are and whether your government is repressive or not, the future of a country should be in the hands of their own citizens, and an official representative of a foreign nation has no business setting that sort of demands to a independent nation. Even Cubans that think they would be better without Castro oppose the HB act in part because of the US ingerence in Cuba business.

    As for us democracy… yeah right. Voters opinion only counts every fourth year or so and that just as vague promises from the elected politician that usually ends in that. The open bribing of politicians (lobbying) displaced long time ago the democracy from the hands of the citizens and put it in the hands of corporate interest.

    As for the right to travel, regardless of whether is circumvented or not, is still illegal and a violation of fundamental rights of US citizens. Who cares if Cuba don’t stamp your passport so you can go whenever you want? From US perspective, you are collaborating with terrorist supporters and breaking the law, and as such they devote a lot of time and resources to track you down and hit you with huge fines and prison threats.

  • AC, I remember (barely) when the Cuban jets shot down the Brothers to the Rescue Cessna aircraft. The facts reported by the American media that impacted Americans the greatest were that Cuban military aircraft had shot down unarmed civilian aircraft. Issues regarding sovereign airspace were less relevant to the public anger that resulted from this shootdown. That Congress did not authorize a military response is still amazing. Keep in mind that the Miami anticastristas at the time were hoping for an event like this to provoke a US military response. Second, If my government was as repressive as the Castro regime then, yes, I would welcome their removal. As it is, in the US we have a democracy that, despite it’s many flaws, does provide for a wholesale makeover every four years. Because of my media choices, I can ignore FoxNews and Rush Limbaugh and still get my news fix met. Finally, the travel restrictions imposed on Americans has been poorly enforced and is easily circumvented. It is not the problem you make it out to be.

  • Those 4 Americans were in violation of the international rules regarding civilian air traffic, illegally trespassing Cuban air space, violating rules governing flight over Havana (FYI, ALL air traffic is banned to fly over the city) and were warned several times before being downed.

    Cuba was found in compliance of international law and didn’t receive any kind of sanction whatsoever for the incident because it was perfectly legal response to a perceived threat (as 9/11 confirmed later).

    To see things in perspective, what would be your reaction from Cuba demanding 1) Immediate dismissal of the president, congress and senate 2) No democrat or republican candidate for the next election 3) A president voted by at least the 75% of the electorate 4) An independent and diverse press not owned by any major corporation and without political affiliation.

    Is that acceptable to you as citizen of the US?

    As for the legality, some portions of the embargo are simply illegal. As I mentioned before, the provisions that forbid US citizens to travel to Cuba is only valid in war time (trade with the enemy act) and since Cuba is not at war and there is no threat whatsoever, the ban is in open violation to US law:

    “(the right to travel) It is a right that has been firmly established and repeatedly recognized.” U.S. v Guest, 383 U.S. 745 (1966),

    “(the right to travel) it is a right broadly assertable against private interference as well as governmental action. Like the right of association, … it is a virtually unconditional personal right, guaranteed by the Constitution to us all.” Shapiro v Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969),

  • Esteban,

    President Obama is in no predicament over Alan Gross. As Moses pointed out, there is zero political pressure to obtain his release, zero political pressure to release the Cuba Five and zero political pressure to end the embargo. A few voices in the wilderness calling for such actions do not amount to political pressure.

    On the other hand, the Castro regime IS in a predicament. They will get no concessions from the US until they release Gross, but they have painted themselves into a corner on that issue. No matter how much they promote the Cuban Five in their state-controlled media, they cannot get them released, which undermines their credibility (among the few Cuban’s who still give them any credit, that is).

    The UN may pass a resolution and a few op-eds from the more liberal American journalists may call for ending the embargo, but they really don’t care. Their lives won’t change one way or another. It’s the Cuban regime who need the embargo lifted. Not America.

    You are really talking about Raul’s predicament.

  • Esteban,
    Thank you for this article. It is informative and balanced.
    Moses Patterson seems eager to provide the U S – style haughtiness of which you speak.

  • You are being far too pessimistic. The US is not asking for Cuba to ‘surrender’. The conditions required by Congress for the lifting of US sanctions are basically: 1) No Castros 2) Open elections 3) Independent press 4) No political prisoners. Keep in mind that “HB” was passed by Congress after Cuba had just killed 4 Americans. At that time, military action against Cuba was also an option. By comparison, simply increasing sanctions was a mild response.The US recent changes in our relationship with Myanmar after an equally long embargo are an indication of our likely response to positive changes in Cuba. You obviously do not know anything about Cuban health care. Unsanitary, poorly supplied and deteriorating hospitals are the rule. Doctors, nurses and other staff are poorly paid and poorly motivated. Is it better than Haiti? Probably. Mexico, no. The US embargo (according to some) may be immoral, but it is legal according to the sovereign laws of the US.

  • Even if Gross were released unconditionally, there would be no movement on US policy toward Cuba. It is only the latest of endless false pretexts to maintain aggressive US attacks against the Cuban people. Another will found the next day.

    Under the terms of Section 206 of the hated Helms-Burton Act, which is still fully in force, these cruel and inhumane sanctions will remain in place until the complete and unconditional surrender of the Cuban people is achieved. It won’t matter what kind of reforms they institute either. It won’t matter what kind of the elections they hold, not even the US-style money-based kind will do if any kind of genuine socialism is left standing at the end of the day. This despite the fact that, against all odds and the best efforts of one US regime after another over a half century, Cuban socialism continues to maintains the best health care and education systems in the region. Even the CIA concedes at their website that Cuba’s infant mortality is the best in the Americas — much better the US, even marginally better than Canada. Under the conditions imposed by HB, the Cuban people are to have no choice in this matter.

    The illegal and immoral US embargo has been condemned every year for twenty years in a row now. Only Israel, who trades freely with Cuba anyway, and the tiny US colony of Palau voted with the US against the resolution last year.

    On the US embargo, Amnesty International has reported:

    “The US government is acting contrary to the Charter of the United Nations [i.e. its embargo on Cuba is illegal]…

    “The restrictions imposed by the embargo help to deprive Cuba of vital access to medicines, new scientific and medical technology, food, chemical water treatment and electricity….

    “The US embargo against Cuba is IMMORAL and should be lifted.”

    Makes you proud, don’t it, America?

  • Senor Morales, I find you to usually be a thoughtful and well-researched writer. However, I am disappointed with your current post. President Obama, as leader of the most powerful nation in the world, arguably ever, is hardly in a “predicament” over the Alan Gross issue. Assuming you have been paying attention lately, internationl issues which put Mr. Obama in predicaments include: the war in Afghanistan and Siria; the threat of a nuclear Iran; tensions between China and Japan; and the increase in Al-Queda’s presence in northern Africa, among many others which do not include Cuba. To say nothing of what he must deal with on the domestic front. At the risk of being indelicate, what may appear important to you and oher Cubans, “ain’t squat” to Americans. Obama is under no pressure, I repeat, NO pressure, domestically or internationally to do anything about the five convicted Cuban spies. There are no boycotts, no work stoppages, no political backlashes, no nada. Moreover, the American justice system has had and will have far bigger problems affecting our reputation. Your analysis is based on the faulty and hugely overblown supposition that Cuba matters to most of America. The reality is that to 97% of America, this, unfortunately, is simply not true.

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