Getting Serious About Alan Gross

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)

Earlier this month, USAID subcontractor Alan Gross began his fourth year in a Cuban prison. Ever since his incarceration, a debate has raged over whether the United States should halt further efforts to engage with the Cuban people until the Cuban government releases Gross. Both Alan and his wife Judy have repeatedly called on the U.S. and Cuba to engage in a dialogue without preconditions. Sadly, like all things Cuba-related, the debate over Gross' incarceration has since devolved into an ideological three-ring circus where finding a solution has become a secondary objective behind not appearing to be making concessions to the enemy.

The Washington Post perfectly captured the tone deafness of the current debate in a recent editorial: "better relations between Cuba and the United States must be conditioned on real steps toward democratization by Havana. But until Mr.Gross is released, they ought to get worse." This position reflects exactly the sort of stale, inside-the-box thinking that has long plagued the discourse over U.S.-Cuba policy.

For years we've known that the Cuban government is incredibly adept at manipulating U.S. policy choices. Time and again, any attempt by the U.S. to increase its engagement with the Cuban people has been met with confrontation and repression by Cuban officials, which in turn emboldens hardliners in the U.S. to call for the tightening economic sanctions. This pattern has become all too predictable, and the Gross case is its latest example: arrested in Havana for bringing communication devices to the island less than three months after President Obama relaxed family travel and remittance restrictions in 2009 and only two weeks after the U.S. House held hearings on lifting the Cuba travel ban for all Americans. In response to Gross' arrest, U.S. hardliners blocked any further normalization efforts in Congress, though they weren't able to stop the Obama Administration from further loosening restrictions on people-to-people travel and remittances in January, 2011. Shortly thereafter, Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once said "It is my personal belief that the Castros do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalization with the United States, because they would lose all of their excuses for what hasn't happened in Cuba in the last 50 years." If we believe this to be the case, then why don't we use this insight to steer our efforts in securing the release of Alan Gross?

The Cubans have often stated that they are willing to swap Gross for five Cuban spies who were arrested in Florida in 1998 for infiltrating a U.S. Navy base and several anti-Castro groups in Miami. The U.S. has refused to accept the swap, and the negotiations have remained stalled for almost three years.

So what can be done? There are three opportunities for securing Gross' release that could also help improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba:

1. Introduce alternative terms to the negotiation. The Cubans have dictated the terms of the negotiation from day one, and hardliners in the U.S. government have seemingly been too happy to play along. However, just because the U.S. won't agree to the spy swap doesn't mean negotiations should stop there. U.S. sanctions on Cuba remain a decades-old morass of congressional actions, presidential directives and executive orders, resulting in an entrenched and inflexible foreign policy that is as incoherent as it is ineffective. There are plenty of outdated sanctions on the books that the United States could repeal or amend in exchange for Gross' release.

2. Pursue Gross' release and economic engagement concurrently. In 2011, the Obama Administration announced a shift in the focus of U.S.-Cuba policy toward empowering civil society and supporting independent economic activity. If Cuba's burgeoning private sector is to grow into a viable alternative to the Island's top-down economic system, it will need a deeper economic relationship with the American private sector. By conditioning all further efforts to engage with the Cuban people on Gross' release, we are playing by the rules of those who benefit from the prolonged confrontation and mutual isolation between the two countries. Denying these private individuals an economic relationship with the United States only serves to further delay the kind of changes that policies like Helms-Burton were ill-designed to accelerate.

3. Look to the Angel Carromero case as a model. We don't know what deal the Spanish government struck with the Cubans to secure the release of Angel Carromero, the Popular Party's pro-democracy activist who was charged with the negligent homicide of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero and will now serve his sentence in Spain. What is clear is that through direct diplomacy, the Spanish have been far more successful at liberating political prisoners, democracy advocates, and businessmen from Cuban jails than any other country, all while promoting democracy inside the island through direct support to pro-democracy groups. On the other hand, our confrontational approach has only perpetuated the conflict without any progress to show for it.

The United Nations recently condemned Cuba's arbitrary detention of Alan Gross for the first time and the U.S. Embargo on Cuba for the 21st year in a row. By pivoting negotiations for Gross's release away from a spy-swap and toward win-win alternatives, both the United States and Cuba stand to gain credibility within the international community. The United States could finally pave the road to a future where it can lead an effective multilateral policy toward Cuba focused on the advancement of human rights and helping the Cuban people. Just as importantly, Alan would finally come home.

Ricardo Herrero is Deputy Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group. He lives in Miami, Florida.