I have nothing against governments sending operatives into other countries to carry out missions that they would never be permitted to carry out openly, and that are illegal under local law to carry out in secret.
Almost all governments do that even as they demand respect for their own sovereignty and profess respect for everyone else’s. We and Cuba have done it to each other, friends have done it to us, and I trust we have snooped on friends.
It’s a little hypocritical, but spying and covert operations are vital aspects of international relations. They help governments verify what other governments are doing and what their intentions are.
They have contributed to peace and security, and they are also employed for questionable purposes. The eye of the beholder has a lot to do with it.
But as a practical matter they are always risky business.
When they go wrong, the offending government typically stays quiet and starts looking for a solution, such as the trade that occurred within days of the arrests of Russian spies in the United States last year.
USAID is different. In the case of Cuba it has used clandestine means to carry out democracy programs, and it has a different way of dealing with operations gone wrong.
In the case of Alan Gross, its operative who was arrested two years ago and is serving a 15-year sentence, USAID and others in the U.S. government assert that Gross had a perfect right to be doing what he was doing in Cuba.
“We think it has been a gross violation of his human rights and a humanitarian abuse that he has not been returned to his family,” the Secretary of State recently told Congress (see video below). She has been joined by a chorus that calls Gross a “hostage,” says Cuban law is illegitimate, and tries to paint Cuba as a place that is dangerous for humanitarian work, as if Gross were a humanitarian worker rather than a government contractor, and as if there were a risk to the thousands of Jews around the world who have brought fellowship and resources to Cuba’s Jewish community.
In effect, the U.S. message is that its agents are free to operate at will on Cuban territory and Cuban authorities have no right to intervene.
Call that what you will, but it is the direct opposite of an effort to free Alan Gross.
A swap, or giving Cuba anything of value in return for Mr. Gross’ release, is out of the question because the Administration fears the word “appeasement.” That word doesn’t come up in other cases because other cases are not part of the warped politics of the Cuba issue. To give something of value would even the score, since we already took something – a piece of Cuba’s sovereignty – and we would get our prisoner back.
If Washington chooses not to recognize Cuban sovereignty or to recognize it only partially – a legitimate policy option but one more attuned to a state of war – then Mr. Gross’ chances diminish.
USAID should amend the warnings it issues about the risk to those who carry out its programs in Cuba. Something like: “If you are caught and convicted under Cuban law you will be on your own. Our priority will be to defend the program, not you.”
And we should all tell our kids that if they want to go into covert operations they should join the CIA, which works to recover its people when operations go sour.
Last September Mr. Gross’ statement in court was released, in which he claimed to have been “used” and “duped.” He didn’t say who did the using and duping. Now in an interview with AP, his wife asserts that the culprit is DAI, the Maryland company that gave him nearly $600,000 in contracts.
According to her, Mr. Gross wanted to be assured that his activities would be legal in Cuba but DAI would not put the question to Cuban officials and barred him from doing so on his own. She says that he was assured that if he were to run into trouble he would be released “in two days.”
I can understand that DAI would not want to contact Cuban officials. The point of the USAID program is to sneak things into Cuba, after all.
The rest is less clear to me. Mr. Gross could have attempted to contact Cuban officials regardless of DAI’s advice. And anyone curious about the way USAID’s programs are viewed in Cuba could find USAID documents that are quite clear on that point (see here, here, and here, not to mention the warning in the State Department’s consular information sheet).
- Maryland Senator Ben Cardin and 18 Senate colleagues called on the Cuban government to release Mr. Gross on humanitarian grounds, citing his respect for Cuban sovereignty and noting that his release would allow the two governments to “resume a more positive path to the benefit of the American and Cuban people alike.” Senators Rubio and Menendez, perhaps disturbed by the word “positive,” did not sign. Café Fuerte has the letter (pdf).
- Café Fuerte also interviews Mrs. Gross, who says her husband has never compared himself to the Cuban Five and “in no way has advocated such an exchange.”
- The Jerusalem Post has an insipid editorial on the Gross case that patronizes Cuba’s Jews, claiming that fear prevented them from mentioning the American prisoner when Raul Castro attended Hanukkah celebrations in the Vedado synagogue last year. If they didn’t mention Gross, it could be because they did not appreciate his efforts. Cuba’s very small Jewish community has positive, very extensive connections to Jews around the world who – unlike USAID and Alan Gross – provide normal, aboveboard, respectful support. And whose “support” does not unwittingly drag a religious congregation into a foreign government’s political program, and into potential trouble with local law.
- AP: The Cuban Interests Section in Washington says Gross was working “undercover” for the U.S. government and did not tell Cubans with whom he worked that he was working for the U.S. government. Also, the statement reiterates Cuba’s interest in a resolution of the matter on “reciprocal” and “humanitarian” terms.