Cuba’s American Hostage
The White House calls for the release of Alan Gross but puts scant pressure on Havana to let him go.
Since December 2009, American development worker Alan Gross has been imprisoned by the Castro regime for trying to help Cuba’s Jewish community connect to the Internet. For that Mr. Gross—who was in Cuba as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development—was arrested, convicted in a sham trial and sentenced to 15 years.
The White House and State Department have repeatedly called for Alan Gross’s “immediate release.” The Gross family’s legal team urged the family to keep a low profile, thinking it could negotiate his release. (The family ended that representation earlier this year.)
But Fidel and Raúl Castro don’t typically react to discretion and haven’t felt much U.S. pressure on this case. Even after Mr. Gross was seized, the administration sought rapprochement with Havana and continued talks in 2010 and 2011. It also has continued to ease U.S. sanctions on Cuba.
Mr. Gross’s sister, Bonnie Rubinstein, recently led a protest in front of the Cuban Interests Section—a de facto embassy—in Washington, D.C., seeking her brother’s release. She feels “he’s being ignored” and says, “Alan does not want to be forgotten. He doesn’t want to be left there. He wants people to know about him.”
It’s easy to understand her concern. In April 2009, the Obama administration eliminated all restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba, which became the centerpiece of our nation’s new “Cuba policy.” Those actions predated Mr. Gross’s arrest. However, after Mr. Gross was seized in December of that year and throughout 2010, while he was being held without trial, the administration took various steps that, collectively, seem incomprehensible.
The administration initially used diplomatic mechanisms to try to negotiate Mr. Gross’s release. These included a high-profile visit to Havana in January 2011 by then-Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson.
Ostensibly this was for the Cuba Migration Talks, which are part of a process to ensure safe and legal migration from Cuba. But Ms. Jacobson was the highest-level official ever to represent the U.S. at the talks, and it was hoped she could intercede on behalf of Mr. Gross. Nothing happened.
Common sense suggests that at this point the Obama administration should have toughened its stance by making clear that there would be repercussions if Mr. Gross was not released. Instead, the administration began another round of easing sanctions the next week.
This time the concessions to Havana had nothing to do with advancing the humanitarian goal of allowing Cuban-Americans to visit and assist their families. Instead Washington agreed to establish a frivolous travel category under the banner of encouraging “people-to-people” visits.
Under the “people-to-people” program, the Cuban government approves package tours of Havana conducted by U.S. “nonprofit” companies. American tourists are accompanied by regime “guides.” Tourists visit government ministries, confiscated cigar factories, censored art festivals, official cultural events and other places burnished by the Castros’ propaganda machine. Evening mojitos and salsa dancing are included.
Such trips have become a great new source of “trouble-free” travelers and income for the Cuban regime. They’re also lucrative for U.S. entities, including many state and local chambers of commerce, which license the dealings and now offer “Cuba tours” to members at a premium price.
The Obama administration followed up that all’s-well message to the Communist dictator still holding an American hostage by granting a visa to Cuban dictator Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, to make a promotional tour across the U.S.
It’s no wonder the Gross family has become more vocal and is now holding weekly protests at the Cuban Interests Section. Two U.S. senators, Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Jerry Moran (R., Kan.)—who have historically encouraged U.S. business ties with the Castro regime—stated in June that they have suspended their efforts to promote U.S.-Cuba trade. Sen Moran said he hoped this would “put pressure” on Havana to release Mr. Gross.
In July, the Obama administration did indefinitely postpone its yearly Cuba-U.S. Migration talks. But the Commerce Department is allowing shipments directly to Cuba out of the Port of Miami of food, medicine and other humanitarian items—and also of 32-inch flat-screen TVs.
Will the Obama administration—or a Romney administration—ever make it clear to the Castro brothers that their regime cannot take Americans hostage with impunity? The prospect of the U.S. rolling back non-humanitarian travel and transactions to the island would get Havana’s attention. One thing is abundantly clear: Alan Gross needs stronger, tougher support than rhetorical demands that he be “immediately released.”
Mr. Claver-Carone, an attorney, is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and host of “From Washington al Mundo” on Sirius-XM’s Cristina Radio.