…but not impossible to resolve.
By Esteban Morales*
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).