U.S. must raise stakes to get hostage Alan Gross returned by Cuba

ALAN GROSS: Photos provided by his attorney show the imprisoned American in 2009, left, and later in 2012 following three years in a Cuban jail.
ALAN GROSS: Photos provided by his attorney show the imprisoned American in 2009, left, and later in 2012 following three years in a Cuban jail. AP

Confronted with the barbaric beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the terrorists of the Islamic State, President Obama has rightly changed course and announced a new strategy.

After six lackluster and bewildering years, the president would do well to reappraise his strategy for dealing with Cuba and North Korea, as well. Cuba is still holding hostage a USAID contractor. Alan Gross is ill and has lost 100 pounds in harsh Cuban prisons.

Havana wants “to exchange” Gross for release of Cuban spies in U.S. prisons who have been convicted of “conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, destruction of aircraft, and murder.” They not only infiltrated Florida military bases, but also set up the killing of four Miami men, members of Brothers to the Rescue, who were flying unarmed civilian aircraft over the Florida Straits to spot fleeing Cubans aboard rafts in need of help.

Raúl Castro, now president of Cuba but then head of its military forces, personally gave the order to the pilots of the Cuban MiG aircraft that shot down the small planes. Today, Castro’s proposed deal to swap “prisoners” pits the desire of Gross’ loved ones to see him free and home against Cuban-American families in Miami who sought and got justice for their loved ones murdered in the Florida Straits.

Since his election President Obama has pursued a policy of extending a “hand of friendship” to Cuba and to North Korea, an equally brutal communist regime. Nothing’s changed for the better in Cuba or North Korea.

As Bloomberg News reported a year ago, North Korea even announced its military has been given “final authorization to attack the United States, possibly with nuclear weapons.” With U.S. troops still stationed on the border between North and South Korea that’s no idle threat.

Alan Gross committed no crime. He gave a laptop computer and satellite telephone to a group of Cuban Jews wanting to connect to the Internet and had boarded a plane to head home when he was taken hostage. For weeks after he was “arrested,” no charges were presented. Then a kangaroo court imposed a 15-year prison sentence, of which he’s served four years.

The draconian sentence can be explained only as another Cuban attempt to force U.S. leaders to comply. The Obama administration has bent over backward pleading for Gross’ release, to no avail.

In the past, Havana extorted ransom from the United States to free Cubans captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion; our government had trained and equipped the men. Havana subsequently engineered a series of refugee crises.

President Clinton was maneuvered into re-interpreting American law to intercept refugees on the high seas and return them to Cuba instead of U.S. ports and freedom. To free the convicted Cuban spies, Havana once offered to exchange 75 human-rights activists that were in its prisons. The dissidents refused to leave Cuba, declaring they weren’t spies but patriots seeking political and economic changes in Cuba. A few years later Castro, responding to international pressure, banished the dissidents and their relatives to Spain with “no right of return.”

Which brings us back to Gross: He is innocent. Freeing him requires severing Cuba’s extortionate link between him and release of the Cuban spies. The Obama administration and Gross’ advocates ought to join in rejecting any “deal” likely to result in the taking of more American hostages and loss of life.

Castro holds on to Gross because he perceives that it’s a way of getting what he wants from the United States. It’s the same worldwide. And, just last month, there were press reports of a “yet unidentified Cuban spy” caught targeting an intelligence system being “sentenced to 13 years in prison.”

It won’t be long before Havana — and other unfriendly countries — will take another American hostage and start the barter anew.

Pursuing diplomatic channels and negotiating is civilized and useful. There also comes a time when something more is needed. That time is now in Cuba. Only when U.S. government raises the stakes — the political and economic risks facing Cuba — will Alan Gross be allowed to come home, and only then will Havana have to think twice before taking another hostage.

Frank Calzon is executive director at the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba.