WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 Sep 2011 | Commentary | News

The Case of Alan Gross: Bill Richardson’s Trip to Cuba

By Geoff Thale

On September 7, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson traveled to Cuba to meet with authorities there about the case of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor whose 15-year prison sentence for distributing sophisticated electronic equipment without authorization was recently affirmed by Cuba’s Supreme Court. Richardson has a long record of involvement in foreign affairs. While a member of the House from New Mexico, he carried out several international missions on behalf of the Clinton Administration, and he served as UN ambassador for the Clinton administration. He is close to Obama administration officials. He has a history of dialogue with Cuba, having visited the island several times. Richardson’s trip generated considerable interest: there was speculation that the visit could lead to the release of Alan Gross. These rumors were fed by—among other things—Richardson’s comment to reporters when he arrived in Havana that he might have something to say in a few days.

But despite encouraging signals from both sides as the trip began, it ended badly. Richardson was not allowed to see Gross, and made no apparent progress in winning his release. He left Cuba on September 12, telling reporters that the trip had been a negative experience. Both U.S. and Cuban diplomatic sources subsequently talked to the press, conveying their respective spins about the trip. The Cuban spin is here ("Cuba hits back at Richardson over failed visit") and the U.S. spin is here ("Bill Richardson Criticizes Cuba After Failed Talks on Alan Gross").

We don’t know what really happened with the Richardson visit, and we shouldn’t jump to overly easy conclusions about the trip, or about internal politics in Cuba (or about U.S. policy making towards Cuba, for that matter) based on the reporting to date. Where we are and where we go from here is a subject for a separate commentary.

In any case, the outcome of Richardson's mission to Cuba is disappointing, for Alan Gross and his family, and for U.S-Cuban relations.

In understanding how we got here, it’s important to take into account not only the recent developments in the Gross case itself, but also the context. In particular, it’s important to look at the ways in which U.S. “democracy promotion” programs directed at Cuba have influenced the unfolding of this diplomatic dispute and human tragedy.

Recent developments in the Gross case

Over the last few months, several new factors have come to play that might influence any decision to pardon or release Alan Gross.

The decision by the Cuban Supreme Court affirming his conviction and his sentence completed the legal process against Gross in Cuba. With the legal proceedings behind them, Cuban authorities might feel freer to consider a pardon or a humanitarian release.

Shortly before Bill Richardson’s visit, Mr. Gross’s attorney in Washington, Peter Kahn, released excerpts from Gross’ trial testimony. Among other statements, Mr. Gross told the court, “I do deeply regret that my actions have been misinterpreted as harmful and a threat against the security and independence of Cuba. Surely, this runs counter to what I had intended.” Mr. Gross told the court that he had been “duped,” perhaps implying that blame rested less with him than with the program for which he was working. These statements might make it easier for Cuban authorities to treat Mr. Gross in a more lenient fashion.

Over the last several months, Cuban authorities have received a number of humanitarian appeals for the release of Alan Gross. WOLA is only one of many organizations that have urged the Cuban government to release Gross on humanitarian grounds, sending a letter to Raul Castro urging that the imprisoned contractor be paroled. Gross, who is 62, has been imprisoned for nearly two years (first under pre-trial detention and then since his conviction in March). He has significant health concerns, and he lost substantial weight during his first months in prison. Furthermore, Gross’ elderly mother is ill, and his daughter has recently undergone breast cancer surgery. It would be a generous and humanitarian gesture to parole Gross and let him return to his family.

Of course, a lot of factors are at play in the decision. The Gross case, like most issues in U.S.-Cuban relations, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, Alan Gross’ detention, prosecution, conviction, and possible parole, are located in the broader context of the relationship between Cuba and the United States, and in particular the U.S.-funded “democracy promotion” programs directed at Cuba.

U.S.Democracy Promotion Programs Directed at Cuba

As explained in a recent WOLA commentary piece, these highly politicized, semi-covert programs run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the Department of State are ill-conceived and counter-productive. They have become a major obstacle in U.S.-Cuban relations.

Spurred in part by Alan Gross’ arrest, there has been a lot of debate about these programs in recent months; Senator Kerry (D-MA), Senator Leahy (D-VT), and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) have all held up program funding and raised questions about the programs’ intent and effectiveness. State Department officials have announced a program review, as well as some program changes.

The current programs should be suspended, and U.S. policy makers ought to re-think what can and should sensibly be done to promote democratic reform and political opening in Cuba. (WOLA has been critical of these programs since they were first developed during the Clinton administration. It is well past time to rethink the whole approach behind these programs, independent of its impact on the Gross case.) Many U.S. authorities have suggested at various times their willingness to rethink these programs. They ought to publicly disavow the “regime change” intentions of the programs, shifting funding away from authorization under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act—whose avowed purpose is “accelerating the transition to democracy in Cuba.” They should set White House lawyers out to figure out how to fund genuinely humanitarian programs—to aid the families of prisoners, for example—through other USAID accounts. They should assure that training programs run by third country contractors are offered to Cubans without regard to their political views and that they are funded outside the Helms-Burton framework. And they should focus more of the resources on apolitical educational, cultural and scientific exchange programs, run through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, not through USAID or the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Likewise, the Gross case has been an obstacle in U.S.-Cuban relations. It is unlikely, in the period leading up to a U.S. presidential election, that the U.S. government will undertake any major initiatives to improve U.S.-Cuban relations. But perhaps, in connection with a resolution of the Gross case, the Administration will rework the programs which employed Alan Gross.

With Friends Like These…

As we’ve noted before, actions by the United States to suspend and re-think the USAID programs for which Mr. Gross was a subcontractor will
make it more likely that he will be released. They will contribute significantly to a climate in which a release is more likely. (Though we’re not suggesting here that any single action will guarantee his release.)

It is therefore dismaying to see that hardliners in the exile community and their supporters have taken the opposite tack. Rather than looking for effective ways to promote economic and political openings in Cuba, they’ve advocated harsh additional measures to “punish” the Cuban government. For example, after Gross’ conviction was affirmed by a Cuban appeals court in August, The Miami Herald editorial board recommended that the Obama administration stop permitting Cuban artists and musicians to perform in this country, arguing that the income from concerts and performances goes to the Cuban state, and that cutting it will hurt the state. Along the same lines, the Herald recommended that Cuban-Americans should be limited to only one family visit a year, presumably to limit the hard currency they bring into the country.

Even more egregiously, Eliot Abrams, writing on the Council of Foreign Affairs’ blog, suggests “[t]here is one further step to take through diplomatic channels now: the Castro brothers should quietly be told that unless their ‘clemency’ is exercised, the relaxation of travel restrictions will be reversed and greater pressure brought on the government of Cuba.”

Put aside for a moment the question of whether ending U.S. performances by Cuban artists would significantly reduce hard currency earnings (only a few Cuban performers come here each year). Put aside as well the question of whether this tactic, if it were to reduce hard currency earnings, would pressure the Cuban government into releasing Alan Gross (the Cuban government has been notoriously resistant to U.S. economic pressure for more than fifty years). Even put aside the question of whether taking steps that deny family contact to Cuban-Americans, or further restrict other Americans’ travel opportunities, is an appropriate response to the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross.

Put all those questions aside, and ask: does anyone really believe that tightening U.S. sanctions on Cuba is likely to make Cuban authorities more sympathetic to the idea of paroling Alan Gross?

Let’s hope that decision-makers here are not listening to these “friends of Alan Gross.” Instead, they should consider taking steps to address the conditions that helped provoke Gross’ arrest and the policies that would reduce tensions between the two governments and encourage cooperation.

Geoff Thale is WOLA’s director of programs. Mr. Thale has studied Cuba issues since the mid-1990s and traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times, including organizing delegations of academics and Members of Congress.

*Updated on Friday, September 23, 2011

(Photo by Mike Schinkel)