I want to note three recent items on the saga of Alan Gross, the USAID contractor now serving his third year in Cuban jail.
First is a vapid USAID/State Department response to this critique of USAID’s capers in Cuba. Obama appointees Mark Feierstein and Michael Posner claim that the author of the critique, Fulton Armstrong, “urges acceptance of the Cuban regime’s laws,” which he does not. He merely mentions Cuban law as an operational reality, as USAID has long done in its own program documents, pointing out that USAID programs contravene Cuban law. By that token, one could level the same cheap accusation at USAID. As for the Cuba programs being “comparable to international efforts in support of democracy elsewhere,” I’m interested to know how many other programs are run by USAID with no office in the country, no agreement with the local government, in contravention of local law, in a manner that attempts to be clandestine, and under a U.S. law that promotes regime change. It doesn’t matter what you or I or Alan Gross or Feierstein or Posner think of Cuban law or USAID’s way of operating. What matters is that USAID has chosen a style of operation in that environment that puts its operatives in predictable danger, and when things go sour, its response is to whine in public and defend the program rather than help get the guy out. Again, if your kids want to become covert operatives, send them to the CIA, not to this crew.
Then there’s a Washington Post editorial that calls for Gross’ release, something everyone wants. It argues that Cuba’s prisoners here should not be released because they acted as “unregistered foreign agents.” And it calls Gross a “would-be humanitarian;” while there’s no basis for doubting his good intentions, he seems to be a businessman in the first instance who was executing a $585,000 contract.
Then there’s an item by Elliott Abrams in the Weekly Standard that accuses members of the Park Avenue Synagogue of having “no shame at all” for traveling to Cuba for a week of religious fellowship while Gross is in jail.
Unlike many of his other writings, this one doesn’t delve into the thinking of the Bush Administration, in which he served. (See, for example, Elliott's interesting discussion of the Bush decision to re-open diplomatic relations with our friends in the erstwhile Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which included his expression of hope “that our embassy folks, visitors, academics and businessmen would – in the long run – pull Libya toward being a more open society.”)
Which is too bad because from the outside and in hindsight, it looks as if the Bush Administration’s strategy toward Cuba was a little cynical, to win hearts and minds along Calle Ocho rather than to change Cuba; that it did so in part by doing what government always does when short on ideas, which is to heave taxpayer money at the problem ($45 million in one year); and that it turned to Beltway contractors to spend so much money, where every red cent was accounted for but where ideas such as Mr. Gross’ prospered readily because they checked the right boxes and kept up the “burn rate” of your money and mine. If “cynical” seems too harsh a word, how else to explain Bush’s massive, expensive strategy to create pressure for change in Cuba that shied away from touching our no-questions-asked immigration policy toward Cubans?
Back to the shameless Park Avenue Synagogue, Elliott argues that American Jews should refrain from engaging with Cuba as long as Gross is in jail. In other words, people who engage effectively should stop in solidarity with someone whose efforts had zero results save for his own imprisonment, the potential endangerment of those he wanted to help, and the waste of taxpayer money.
When the New Yorkers make their trip, they will see that engagement by Jews around the world has helped Cuba’s small Jewish community through fraternal and religious visits, by sending rabbis to a community that has none, by promoting trips to Israel for religious education, by rebuilding the synagogue, by providing Internet connections, and by stocking the synagogue’s wonderful upstairs pharmacy that probably helps twenty Cubans outside the congregation for every Cuban Jew who uses its medicines. None of this help has cost taxpayers one dime and none of it has been provided under false pretenses, which Cuba’s Jews appreciate.
Elliott should join the Park Avenue group. To feel better, he can stay in a crummy hotel or a private home. Like anyone with a sense of shame about wasting taxpayer money, he would find himself wondering about the money the Bush Administration shoveled in the direction of Cuba, and to what effect.