Could the keys of St. Peter unlock a Cuban jail cell?

Can the Vatican free Alan Gross in Cuba? It helps first to consider how the Roman Catholic Church freed itself in Cuba.

Cuba has seen surprising turns in recent years. Fidel Castro handing the communist dictatorship to his younger brother Raúl. Raúl decreeing capitalist reforms to save the communist dictatorship.

But perhaps most unexpected has been the sudden rise of the Cuban church as the first and only alternative institution to the Cuban revolution. In fact, a half century after Fidel banished thousands of priests and nuns from the island, the rebounded Catholic Church is arguably the one non-communist entity in Cuba that Raúl trusts today.

The church brokered the release of more than 100 Cuban dissidents in 2011. The church is helping Raúl implement his economic changes — including, as odd as it sounds in Marxist Cuba, M.B.A. classes. “At this point,” says Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, “the Catholic Church has one of the strongest institutional bases in Cuba and has been very successful at talking directly to the Cuban government.”

All of which makes a move by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week seem smart. During a stop in Rome, Kerry announced he’s asked the Vatican to help negotiate the release of Gross, the 64-year-old State Department contractor who just finished four years of a 15-year prison term in Cuba for subversion.

Cuba calls Gross a spy who brought unlawful satellite communications equipment into the country. Gross insists he’s just a civilian aid worker who was helping Cuba’s Jewish community improve its Internet access. The Obama administration says Gross is a political pawn whom Havana believes it can leverage to win the release of four convicted Cuban agents serving lengthy prison terms in the U.S.

Last month, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted President Obama is working to liberate Gross: “The president has, himself, personally engaged foreign leaders and other international figures to use their influence with Cuba to promote Mr. Gross’s release.”

But few people seem convinced — least of all Gross, who says he’s lost 100 lbs. in prison and recently told Obama in a letter: “I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me.” Says the Gross family’s Washington, D.C., attorney, Scott Gilbert: “This administration has effectively done nothing to negotiate or otherwise obtain Alan’s release.”

Hence the urgency to find new avenues, starting with the Vatican. Gross himself is Jewish, but many analysts think the church could be a key broker mainly because the United States and Cuba, bitter longtime foes, have so little practice talking to each other. “The apparition of a third party,” says Duany, “especially if it’s the Catholic Church, [would put] these negotiations in a better perspective.”

Meaning, he says, that it would help Washington and Havana more effectively figure out what bargaining chips are politically feasible.

What’s not doable is the cold war-style spy swap the Cubans want. “Alan Gross is a hostage,” says former U.S. intelligence officer Brian Latell, author of Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. “He should not be released in an exchange with professional intelligence officers.”

But experts like Latell say Obama does have legitimate bargaining resources. Among them: taking Cuba off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. “The body of evidence that Cuba sponsors terrorism is getting weaker and weaker,” says Latell. “This is something that I think many in Washington are probably prepared to discuss with Cuba.”

Gilbert is skeptical, calling the Vatican’s possible mediation “helpful rather than hopeful.” While he says he welcomes the dialogue, “I find it highly unlikely that the Vatican in and of itself will be able to negotiate [Gross’] release without the involvement, actively, of the United States.”

The U.S. government, which Gross has sued, bears an even greater responsibility, Gilbert argues, because the State Department did not adequately prepare Gross for the hazards involved with pro-democracy aid work in communist Cuba. “The project on its face violated Cuban law,” says Gilbert, “a fact about which Alan was unaware.” The State Department denies it knowingly put Gross at any risk.

But even Gilbert acknowledges the Catholic Church has Raúl Castro’s ear — and that of Obama, who is slated to meet with Pope Francis in March to discuss poverty. “There is a commonality there,” says Gilbert, “that could be very useful.”

In more ways than one. One of the ironies of the Gross tragedy is that while it plays out, U.S.-Cuba relations have recently been thawing, with bilateral talks resuming in areas like immigration and mail service. But they won’t move much further until Alan Gross’ cell is unlocked — maybe with the keys of St. Peter.

Tim Padgett is Americas editor for WLRN-Miami Herald News.

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