Alan Gross and the Broader Stalemate with Cuba

Castro - Obama
Alan Gross and the Broader Stalemate with Cuba - Morgan Graham

In a heartbreaking open letter published earlier this month, 64-year-old Alan Gross pleaded with President Obama for his release. December 3 marked the former USAID contractor’s fourth year imprisoned in Cuba. In his appeal, Gross describes how he is confined to a small space for 23 hours a day, how his wife had to sell their home since he is unable to support them financially, and how he was absent for his daughter’s wedding and battle with breast cancer. “With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me,” Gross wrote.

The public appeal of Alan Gross has shed light on US-Cuba relations anew. At the time of his arrest, Gross was working as a contractor for USAID setting up Internet connections in small communities. Gross’ sentence calls for 15 years in prison for "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state”. The Cuban government has historically been hostile toward USAID programs, insisting they are attempts to undermine the government. Sadly, Gross is simply collateral damage, the victim of an outdated foreign policy towards the island nation. After half a decade of failed attempts to eradicate communist leadership in Cuba, it is high time for the US government to reevaluate its strategy. The case of Alan Gross begs broader questions: what are the obstacles preventing detente between these two states and what does this mean for Gross?

Lately there has been some renewed hope for improved relations. In 2011, Raùl Castro implemented a series of reforms enabling small business licenses, a free market for housing, and less travel restrictions for Cubans. The US has in turn introduced changes of their own by lifting certain restrictions on Cuban-Americans remittances as well as certain restrictions on travel. Since then, not too much had changed – until this past Tuesday. In an unexpected, symbolic gesture, President Obama shook hands with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Whether this was a deliberate political gesture remains to be seen. Nevertheless, these humble improvements in bilateral relations from both ends are small steps towards renewed ties; however, many issues still obstruct any significant evolution of US foreign policy toward Cuba.

Quite ironically, the largest obstacle standing in the way of the Cuban-American issue may well be that it is a non-issue. Washington has its discomfort where Cuba is concerned; however, the government will be unlikely to act unless the situation becomes a crisis. Frequently, the White House is too concerned with putting out fires, both at home and abroad. As a superpower, the US always has its plate full, and taking on the Cuban issue when the status quo seems to be working for most Americans, would be adding unnecessary weight. Half of the American populace is too young to even recall a pre-embargo era. Maintaining the status quo, while not ideal, proves easier than its alternative.

Parties within the US affected by current bilateral relations include the agricultural industry and Cuban exiles. Historically, exiles have influenced American policy by exerting considerable political pressure to maintain hostile relations. However, as Obama is a second-term president, he no longer needs to contend with the swing state of Florida, and a younger demographic of Cuban-Americans appear to favor easing the hardline stance towards the island. Meanwhile, opening up to Cuba means billions annually in agricultural export dollars and the creation of some thousands of American jobs, a benefit that could serve the US well given its sluggish economy.

Even if this issue gained political momentum at home, further obstacles to change would persist. The embargo was written into law in 1992 and 1996. Ending this policy would require an act of Congress, whereby the remaining pro-embargo hardliners would exert their force. Some opponents would try to make concessions by pushing for a softer approach, mirroring Obama’s current policy. The mainstream fear at play is that if the US eases the embargo prior to major Cuban reform, the former will only help prop up Castro’s government and economy. Some who favor a less drastic approach advocate that the US should exploit the small free-market introductions Raùl has made and hope that this will catalyze change from within Cuba by the Cuban people. In fact, in April of 2013, the State Department released its 2014 budget, which included $15 million for “Cuba democracy and human rights projects”. This popular perspective advocates a more risk-averse approach to Cuba, which is likely to be favored by the US in the near-term.

Favoring a softer approach is in part driven by pride. If the US gives up the embargo before the communist regime has been crippled and the Castro brothers are gone, the government is admitting defeat. Yet, this hardliner image that Washington tries to portray is also working against US interests. This year, the UN voted against the embargo for the 22nd time and Latin American countries are not reluctant to vocalize their dissent on the issue. Moreover, a change in policy towards Cuba is also a change in policy towards the island’s biggest ally, Venezuela. Relations between the US and Venezuela are frosty, to say the least. However, with the death of Hugo Chávez, the future of Venezuelan oil subsidies for Cuba is looking less certain under the Maduro government. The Cuban dream of discovering offshore oil – leading to self-sufficiency or even exports – is experiencing continuous setbacks. It may be time to exploit Cuba’s vulnerability and strike while the iron is hot.

All things considered, the case of Alan Gross may still be the one major political issue that could derail all progress toward improved ties. Cuba has offered to trade Gross for four Cuban spies that have been jailed in the US since 1998, which has been refused on a number of occasions. These remaining members of the “Cuban Five” are considered national heroes in Cuba and the Castro government has made wining them back a priority. Conversely, the US refuses to trade what they see as four spies for a wrongly imprisoned civilian. In response to Gross’ open letter, the Cuban government again offered the swap, and it was again rejected. With both sides having staked their legitimacy on this dispute, it is unlikely that either side will back down in the near-term. Instead, the State Department will continue its rhetoric of releasing Gross “on humanitarian grounds”, which will continue to fall on deaf ears.

This stalemate is not only destroying the lives of Alan Gross and his loved ones, but is hindering greater progress toward improved bilateral relations between these two nations, something that is sorely overdue. It is time both sides approach the bargaining process with new offers. This deadlock must be circumvented soon if US-Cuban relations are going to progress in any substantive way.