The Castros’ Captive
Why Appeasing Havana Won’t Free Alan Gross
FRANK CALZON is Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba. He administered U.S. Agency for International Development grants in support of democracy in Cuba at Freedom House and the Center for a Free Cuba from 1996 to 2009.
In “Our Man in Havana,”  R. M. Schneiderman suggests that Alan Gross will not be freed from his Cuban prison unless the U.S. State Department shuts down its programs supporting democracy and human rights in Cuba. This conclusion is faulty, if not utterly ridiculous. Gross, who worked for a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor, is serving a 15-year jail sentence for trying to help Havana’s Jewish community connect to the Internet, an act most of the world does not recognize as a crime. In 2009, Gross was seized just before he was scheduled to fly home to the United States and held for 14 months before any charges were filed against him. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson has aptly described him as a “hostage.”
What seems to gall Schneiderman is not Gross’ imprisonment, but rather that Congress mandated the democracy-promotion program in Cuba in the first place. Schneiderman characterizes the U.S. government’s continuation of such programs as a failed opportunity to do away with “the antiquated politics of the Cold War.” He is correct that the programs are modeled on those that successfully cracked the Iron Curtain and that, after the collapse of European communism, were wholeheartedly endorsed by Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, and others. But he is wrong to call the program “antiquated” when Cuba remains a Stalinist-style state. The programs’ fundamental goal remains to break through the Castro regime’s control of information that isolates the Cuban people and keeps them in bondage.
That the democracy-promotion program annoys the Cuban regime does not make it a failure of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, there is no evidence to support Schneiderman’s claim that canceling the program would have freed Gross or produced other tangible benefits. The author recounts a 2010 conversation between Fulton Armstrong, a senior adviser to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and “high-level Cuban officials.” Armstrong is quoted as telling the Cubans that the democracy programs were “stupid.” He continued, “We’re cleaning them up. Just give us time, because politically we can’t kill them.” Armstrong then asked, “Will this help you release Alan Gross?” to which he believes the Cubans said yes. This misses the fact that when it comes to Cuba, only two people are empowered to say yes — Raúl and Fidel Castro. And the Castros have a long history of biting any hand of friendship extended to them.
Indeed, even though Congress placed a hold on funding for the democracy program in 2010, Gross was tried and sentenced in March 2011. Washington may have had other reasons to think Cuba would be releasing Gross, but he did not come home with either former President Jimmy Carter nor Richardson, both of whom traveled to Havana.
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