Alan Gross: Time to Negotiate

In this photo provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadi
In this photo provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal at Finlay military hospital in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. The Maryland-native was imprisoned in December 2009. At the time he was working as a subcontractor on a democracy-building project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. (AP Photo/James L. Berenthal)

Last year, in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of representatives, Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) demanded that Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, reveal whether the U.S. tried to negotiate with Havana, somehow, the release of Alan Gross. Rivera said: "It is outrageous that the Obama administration would be negotiating with a terrorist regime to free an American hostage."

This policy is correct: the U.S. should not give in to the demands of terrorists. That would only encourage them to take further hostages. But this has nothing to do with Gross or Cuba.

If there were a list of non-democratic countries, Cuba should be on it, but Rivera's references to terrorism are a manipulation. The State Department has not recorded a single terrorist act sponsored by Cuba in two decades. Recently, Havana hosted another negotiations round between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos. The Colombian government not only appreciated Cuba's facilitation of the conversations but also demanded that Havana be included in the next Summit of the Americas. In Spain, the other country supposedly a target of groups protected by Cuba, the ETA has demobilized and successive socialist and popular governments have thanked Havana for receiving freed comandos of the Basque organization.

Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba, not kidnapped. When Secretary Clinton says: "Mr.Gross was not a spy. Mr. Gross worked for a development group that was helping Cubans," she is hiding part of truth. Mr. Gross was not an intelligence agent but he worked for a contract of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act. This law has been condemned by the UN for violating Cuba's sovereignty. He is not a hostage but a victim of our policy of regime change. If Washington agreed to negotiate his freedom with Cuba, such action would not create any risk of abduction of other Americans. Cuba does not kidnap American tourists, like Hamas and Hezbollah do with Israeli citizens in order to trigger new negotiations.

The Obama administration publicly repeating that the only way to solve the Gross case is for Cuba to "unconditionally" release him has surrendered the political initiative to the Cuban right. These hard-line exiles, to whom President Obama owes nothing (they tried to prevent his reelection by presenting Obama as a socialist, associated with Hugo Chavez and Mariela Castro), still do not accept their own responsibility for Gross' tragedy. Gross' arrest was not a surprise in the history of Washington's conflicts with Cuba's sovereignty, caused largely by of some exile groups' insistence on maintaining the U.S. embargo against Cuba and imposing regime change from the outside.

After his reelection, the president has the flexibility that he lacked before November. Judy and Alan Gross' suit against the US government is an interpellation against poorly designed USAID programs in Cuba. If Gross was uninformed about the risks he was taking and was not prepared to face them, then what does that say about the irresponsibility of U.S. in imposing these risks on the Cuban citizens who are used in these programs without obtaining their informed consent? It is time to think about creative alternatives, such as the transfer of millions in USAID funds to less provocative and intrusive initiatives. Wouldn't it be less controversial to give university scholarships or sponsor programs aimed at economic development and humanitarian aid, without any connection to the Helms-Burton law?

Any negotiated solution has its costs but it is logical to compare it with the alternatives. In Washington and Miami, the discussion is incomplete if hardliners do not assume the cost of U.S. government abdicating its moral and legal responsibilities toward someone who worked for the USAID programs conceived under the Helms-Burton law. The sectors opposed to a negotiation have prevailed without even explaining the benefits, costs and uncertainties of the proposed course of action. It is time they explain to Judy Gross that their proposal amounts to leaving her husband behind bars for four years and more.

The day there is political will in Washington and Havana to solve the structural problems of the bilateral relationship between the two countries, they will creatively solve the Gross affair. Hence, the worst case scenario is the absence of negotiations on topics of mutual interest. Havana must also think twice. Nothing would be worse than wasting the next four years of Obama's second term without promoting a less confrontational relationship. It would not be in Cuba's national interest. It would not improve the situation of Cuba's agents still serving sentences in 2016.

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