As USAID subcontractor Alan Gross begins his sixth year of incarceration in Cuba, the Obama administration continues to resist the one obvious way to win his freedom — a humanitarian exchange for three Cuban spies who have been in U.S. jails for over 16 years.
“There’s no equivalency,” Secretary of State John Kerry insisted last April. “We’re not going to trade as if its spy for spy.” A Department of State spokesperson reiterated that position again this week on the fifth anniversary of Gross’ arrest.
With Alan Gross’ life at stake, as well as the ability of the White House to advance U.S. interests in better relations with Cuba, President Obama should reconsider this self-defeating position.
To be sure, the missions of Alan Gross and the so-called “Cuban Five” (now three, since two were released after completing their sentences)were not equivalent. The Cubans were intelligence agents, part of an espionage network that targeted Homestead Air Force Base and Cuban-American exile groups that Cuba suspected of orchestrating a wave of terrorist bombings in Havana tourist hotels.
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By contrast, Alan Gross was not a professional spy, but a USAID subcontractor carrying out a democracy promotion program which had the explicit goal of undermining the Cuban regime. He was arrested while setting up secret, independent, communications networks to enable Cuban groups to obtain, receive and disseminate information via encrypted satellite links to the Internet. The goal of his mission, according to Gross’ own USAID work proposal, was to “identify practical ways to develop and reach a larger pro-Democracy constituency.”
Although Gross and the Cubans had different missions, their cases are nevertheless equivalent in other ways. Both Gross and the Cuban spies were acting as agents of their respective governments — sent by those governments into hostile territory to carry out covert operations in violation of the other country’s laws. In both cases, their governments bear responsibility for their predicament and have a moral obligation to extricate them from it.
And in both cases, the trials and sentences meted out were less than models of due process. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reviewed the two cases separately and found fault with both convictions.
Finally there is a humanitarian equivalence: Alan Gross has been in prison for five years, the Cubans for 16. On the anniversary of Gross’ arrest, the White House called for his release on “humanitarian grounds.” The Cuban government has been calling for the humanitarian release of its agents, too, suggesting “parallel gestures” in the two cases.
Should President Obama agree to such “humanitarian gestures” he would have the support of history on his side. Despite Secretary Kerry’s suggestion that Washington only trades “spies for spies,” U.S. presidents have conducted nonequivalent prisoner exchanges with Cuba in the past.
In 1963, for example, the Kennedy administration negotiated the release of 27 imprisoned Americans, among them three CIA agents. In return, Kennedy ordered the release of four Cubans, one convicted of second degree murder for accidentally shooting and killing a nine-year-old girl during a brawl with anti-Castro exiles, and other three arrested in possession of weapons and explosives, charged with conspiracy to commit sabotage.
In 1979, President Carter granted clemency to four Puerto Rican nationalists. Three of them, including Lolita Lebrón, had been convicted of attempted murder for an attack inside the House of Representatives in 1954, wounding five members; the fourth attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman in 1950, during which a White House police officer was killed. Eleven days after their release, Fidel Castro set free four CIA agents imprisoned for plotting to assassinate Cuban leaders — completing his side of an informal agreement for a parallel humanitarian exchange.
In their day, the cases of the Cuban saboteurs and Puerto Rican nationalists were just as prominent — and just as politically sensitive— as the case of the Cuban Five. Yet two U.S. presidents saw the wisdom of those exchanges to win the release of U.S. agents jailed in Cuba and advance broader U.S. foreign policy interests.
They set a historical precedent for President Obama to follow. The approach President Obama has pursued for five years — insisting that Alan Gross did nothing wrong, and that the Cubans release him unconditionally — has utterly failed. The Cuban government has proven to be just as adamant about winning the release of its people as we are about winning the release of ours.
With Alan Gross increasingly suicidal because his government has done so little to free him, time is running out for a positive resolution for both countries.
“They are in prison now because I f—ked up,” President Kennedy famously told his aides about the members of Brigade 2506 captured after the Bay of Pigs as he authorized efforts to negotiate their release. “I have to get them out.” Obama has the same obligations to Alan Gross. It is time for the president to get him out.
William M. LeoGrande at American University and Peter Kornbluh at the National security Archive are co-authors of the new book, “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between the United States and Cuba.”