Saturday, December 3, 2011

Alan Gross, on his own

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.

More on this case:

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).

And more:

  • 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.


brianmack said...

Here's the insanity of it all, if the U.S. had semi-normal relations with Cuba, most citizens would have exactly
what Mr. Gross was illegally distributing. In other words, the embargo is what has prevented the Cuban population with the means to
listen and view what's going on in this country, unbiased and unafraid.
I'm amazed that this has rarely been mentioned. Get rid of the embargo and you will have a free Cuba!!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Peters,

I suspect, although the Cubans themselves are a little confused about what they are accusing Alan Gross of, that Alan Gross was arrested because he was attempting to set up a mesh network in Cuba, of the type that the State Department has been developing to use in hostile totalitarian countries that do not allow their population to have permanent or temporary internet access and that, although the efforts to develop such a network in Cuba while Alan Gross is arrested, they will be resumed with more precaution once he is released.

So I believe that this is one additional reason for the Cuban government to refuse to release Alan Gross.

Not only is he their sole negotiation chip for the release of their five cuban spies imprisoned in the US, but while he is imprisoned, the Cuban government is reasonably certain that the US government will not continue to make efforts to provide clandestine internet access to a part of its population.

This is a message to discuss a small part of the problem people may not normally be aware of.

In a serie of future ones, if you allow me, I'll try to comment by parts the whole Alan Gross five Cuban spies enchilada.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post, shedding light on the issue from objective standpoint. I can't believe the USA administration's posture on this one.

Anonymous said...

The official Cuban government version of events is that:

1- During the nineties the right wing Cubans in the United States were financing a series of terrorist incidents in Havana hotels to scare off foreign tourists and that the US government was not doing anything about it.

2- The Cuban government sent over to the US a series of agents to infiltrate these right wing groups discover their plans and communicate them to the Cuban government so that the terrorist activities in the island could be neutralized.

3- After obtaining sufficient evidence of these activities from his agents, Fidel Castro decided that the Cuban government should contact the FBI and provide them with this information to give the FBI the necessary leads to investigate these right wing groups, verify their criminal activities, prosecute them and put an end to them.

4- Instead of doing this the FBI handed over the information that had been provided by the Cuban government to the right wing Cuban groups in the United States that Castro accused of promoting terrorism.

5- Then, with the active aid of these Cuban right wing groups, the FBI reversed engineered the information to trace back the Cuban government informants infiltrated within these groups.

6- Once located, these Cuban government agents were placed under observation, proof of their activities was gathered and once a sufficient amount was available they were finally arrested and prosecuted.

7- All those arrested accepted they were Cuban agents but stated that they were not in the US to spy on the US government or military but that their sole purpose was to report on the right wing groups financing and promoting terrorist activities inside the island.

8- The US government prosecution on the other hand attempted to prove that they were guilty of more heinous crimes such as spying on the US government and being involved in the plot that resulted in the downing of two planes and the death of four Cuban American Castro opponents on 2/24/1996.

Several very important conclusions that have a bearing on the present imbroglio can be derived from all the ground we have covered so far.

From the Cuban government perspective, the FBI acted in bad faith when it used the evidence about a group promoting terrorist activity that the Cuban government had supplied it to prosecute the informants instead of the perpetrators of a terrorist activity.

What was even more aggravating was that this bad faith action made Fidel Castro look like a snitch to his own subordinates and thus undermined their loyalty to him.

This is a very serious charge on a regime that is held together in by the bonds of loyalty between the charismatic supreme leader and his subordinates.

Fidel Castro and his brother must do their utmost to recover these convicted spies in order to try to regain the full confidence of their subordinates that is needed to ensure their own future political survival in a very hostile world.

This is the reason that they attach so much importance to recovering them.

While they remain in prison, their subordinates have a reason to distrust them and this weakens the monolithic coherence of the Cuban totalitarian regime!

When that trust begins to disappear, such totalitarian regime, based on personal loyalty to a charismatic leader, also starts to crumble.

It is crucial for the regime's survival to regain it as rapidly as possible.

In the next installment I shall talk about the trial and conviction of the Cuban five.


Anonymous said...

The official Cuban government line is that the five Cuban agents who were tried on spying charges received excessive sentences for two reasons:

1- The prosecutor pressured other codefendants who turned state evidence into accusing them of crimes they did not commit in order to receive a reduction of their sentence.

2- The Miami venue of the trial exposed the jury to a lot of unfavorable community pressure
and made a fair trial impossible.

The first situation might have occurred but there is little proof that it could have had a significant weight in the outcome of the trial.

There is evidence in the court records to indicate that the prosecutor was aware of the weakness of some of the more serious accusations for which he thought there was insufficient evidence and tried to withdraw them but was restricted from doing so by the judge.

So the reason for the severe sentences does not lie in the conduct of the prosecutor but with that of the jury which throughout a very long trial was under the constant influence of a very hostile community opinion.

Indeed in the court records there are jury complaints presented to the judge that their photographs were being taken as they left the court and that their license plate numbers were also being recorded and being published in the communities spanish newspapers.

Moreover, these were constantly making hostile comments against the accused and drumming up community public opinion against them all along the prolongued trial.

When the testimony was concluded, after a very short deliberation,
the jury convicted the defendants on all counts including those that the District Attorney had attempted to withdraw because he thought he had insufficient proof.


Anonymous said...

With respect to Gross, whatever we might think about the fact that Cuban law restricts people's right to have access to the internet and to be informed, it is a fact that the introduction and distribution of the software and hardware he brought to Cuba had been prohibited and that he broke this law.

Therefore, although this goes against the right of the Cuban population to be informed, the Cuban government had every legal right to convict him for this "crime".

Now the Cuban government is evidently using him as a negotiating chip and is not going to let him go until they get their five agents back.

However, this does not mean that they are proposing a one to five swap.

Obviously they are willing to negotiatea and are willing to throw in other political prisoners to close the deal.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, seems to be in a loose loose situation in an election year.

If it does not get Alan Gross back it will probably loose part of the Jewish vote and part of the vote of the rest of the electorate because it will be accused by its Republican opponents of being weak and allowing itself to be pushed around by a third world dictatorship.

On the other hand, if it swaps the five Cuban agents for Gross, it will keep the Jewish vote but loose part of the Cuban vote and part of the vote of the general population because its opponents will accuse it of giving in to blackmail from a weak third world country dictatorship.

Since the Jewish vote is more important to the Obama administration than the Cuban vote, which is predominantly Republican anyway, the Democratic administration will probably want to strike a deal with the Cuban government that will allow Gross and the five Cuban agents to return to their countries before next year's November election.

However, it can not afford to make a one for five deal because this would give credence to the blackmail accusation and cost it votes among the non Jewish and non Cuban electorate.

Thus it is forced to attempt to get some other goodies to even the basic one for five deal deal to give less weight to the blackmail accusation and allow it to save face with the voters.

What those other goodies will be is what is probably being negotiated under the table at present by both governments at present.

The Cubans are probably willing to throw in two Cuban Americans accused of an armed invasion of the island, several Cuban convicted CIA agents, other Cuban political prisoners and even two Salvadoreans convicted of participating or planning terrorist activities that took place in Cuba.

The problem is many of these other possible assets, given their rap sheet, might not be palatable to the US government.

However, something will probably be finally worked out before the November 2012 Presidential Elections.

The timing of the swap will probably depend on the convenience of the Obama administration.

The Cuban government is probably ready to carry out the swap at anytime since it will strenghten its public support and will open the door to new negotiations that could ease the effects of the US embargo.

The deal will probably take place much earlier and further away from November of 2012 if the Obama political advisors expect the net effect on voters to be unfavorable for the democrats and closer to the date of the elections otherwise to allow the results to be less harmful in the first case or more beneficial in the second for the Obama administration.


Anonymous said...

Cantaclaro - your political observations are astute. Have you seen the photographs from election day 2008 published at ?

Why is the Obama Administration assuming they are going to get any Cuban American vote enough to carry them in Florida when they did not get it the last time and surely will not get it again next year?

Why would the Obama Administration fear resolving the Gross matter in an exchange when clearly it will garner him more positive press than negative?

Anonymous said...

I obviously overewtimated the impact that Alan Gross" imprisonment in Cuba would have on the Jewish Community in the US on an election year.

Obviously the nuclear threat posed by Iran to Israel drew far more attention.

Also Obama evaded a prickly subject that could have cost him some votes during his reelection campaign.

However, I believe that some sort of five for five swap will be carried out during Obama's second step as a prerequisite for negotiating a conditional lifting of some of the embargo restrictions.

I believe that Obama has three interests in carrying out such policies.

1- Promoting further US exports to the island in order to better the US balance of payments and create more US jobs.

2- Getting increased support for the Democratic party in Florida among recent Cuban immigrants and 1st generaton Cuban Americans.

3- Promoting policies to advance democracy and a free market in Cuba.

Also when Jewish American interest in Israel's crisis slacken at some time in the future the Alan Gross issue will come to the forefront and more pressure will be exerted on the US government to find a solution.

Finally Obama no longer faces reelection and that gives him some flexibility to stretch his neck out and implement riskier and more polemical decisions.

However, although these measures can be logically expected sometime in Obama's second four year term the exact moment when they would occur can not be forecast since these are not matters that are prioritized in Obama's agenda and will keep being pushed to the backgound by other more urgent problems that will continue to crop up in foreign relations.