Gen. Raúl Castro’s regime is considering a pardon for Alan Gross, the American USAID subcontractor arrested in Cuba in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for distributing computers to the Jewish community in the island.
This calculated olive branch to the just-reelected Obama administration has two objectives. First, to obtain U.S. concessions in the area of travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. Second, to obtain the release of four Cuban spies, serving sentences in U.S. jails for espionage activities on behalf of the Castro government.
Some within the Castro regime are arguing that the Obama administration will be pushed to offer major concessions if Cuba frees Gross. The reasons: there is a pent-up demand for travel to Cuba; American tourists will bring much needed dollars; and Cuba’s efficient security apparatus could control American tourists, primarily interested in visiting Cuban beaches and less concerned about subverting the Communist regime.
Most argue that American tourists will have little impact, other than economic. They point out that over the past several years hundreds of thousands of Canadian, Europeans and Latin American tourists have visited the island. There have been no major political changes. Money from tourists, furthermore, has been flowing into businesses owned by the Castro government and the Cuban military, thus strengthening state enterprises.
The recent migration law enacted by Cuba that eases travel for Cubans to visit the United States and other countries is also entering into Gen. Castro’s calculations. The liberalization of Cuban travel will put pressure on the Obama administration to allow Americans to travel to the island. From Cuba’s point of view it is a win/win situation. More Cubans will travel abroad, many staying in the host country or making their way to the U.S. More American tourists will travel to Cuba leaving their dollars in the island.
What should the United States do? Any major policy concession to Cuba will be out of proportion to the release of an unjustly imprisoned American. Gross is a hostage being used by the Cuban government to exact change from the U.S. The history of U.S-Cuba relations has been characterized by Cuba’s daring actions followed by major U.S. concessions (i.e. U.S.-Cuba migration accord allowing 20,000 Cubans to enter the United States following Mariel).
The release of Gross should be seen as a humanitarian gesture requiring no action on the part of the United States. When Raúl Castro is willing to offer irreversible concessions, the administration should respond in kind. Ping-pong diplomacy worked with China. Tit for tat should with Cuba.
Jaime Suchlicki is director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.