ALAN GROSS

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

 

tpadgett@wlrnnews.org

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.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
DE LA O

    A JUDGE’S VIEW

    Judge has faith in the law, and in human potential

    I am a circuit judge in Miami-Dade County serving in the criminal division. Every day, I make decisions about whether to release defendants who are awaiting trial and whose families rely on them for basic needs; whether to grant requests by victims of domestic violence to remove stay-away orders that keep their families apart; and whether to sentence convicted defendants to prison, house arrest or probation.

  •  
MCT

    JUDICIAL ELECTIONS

    There’s got to be a better way to seat judges

    When I think of the traits that are essential for someone to be a good judge, I immediately identify characteristics such as legal ability and understanding of legal principles, courtroom experience, record and reputation, temperament and community involvement. As a Miami-Dade County voter, and as someone who has served on several endorsement panels for various organizations, I have serious concerns about the quality of the candidates that are running for this very important post. I also have reservations about the election process through which we are selecting the members of our lower courts.

  •  
Jack Orr cast the only vote in the Florida Legislature in support of school integration.

    JOHN B. ORR

    A man of vision, principle — and flaws

    It was 1956, and the Florida Legislature was considering a bill to get around the U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring racial segregation in schools. Only one of the 90 House members voted against the bill — a young lawyer from Miami named Jack Orr.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category