When President Barack Obama looks abroad, he sees only the possibility of frustration and more frustration. He will not be supervising the return of Crimea to Ukraine. He and the West are unable to end the slaughter of Syria’s citizens by its government. There is little chance his administration will forge a final peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
I believe that Obama should continue to apply himself assiduously to these problems. But I also have a suggestion for something he could do that might actually work. It’s something that would help undo a five-decade-old American policy disaster, something that would begin the process of resetting (to borrow a word) the U.S.’s relations with an entire region, and something that would free a U.S. government contractor — an American whose imprisonment is largely his own government’s fault — from a foreign prison.
The dysfunctional U.S. relationship with Cuba is Washington’s longest-running tragicomedy. For almost 55 years, the United States has treated Cuba like a pariah state in the hope that sanctions, embargoes and broad isolation would bring about the end of the communist government. As a general rule, if a policy hasn’t worked in more than half a century, it’s probably time to find a new policy.
In fact, to most foreign policy practitioners, it’s an obvious negative: U.S. relations with much of Latin America are strained precisely because of our archaic approach to the challenge of Cuba. Which brings us to one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to normalization, the imprisonment, in a Cuban military hospital, of one Alan Gross, a resident of suburban Maryland and a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which dispatched Gross in 2009 to Cuba on a semi-covert mission so farcical and lunkheaded as to defy belief.
Gross, who is now 64, was hired by a USAID contractor, Development Alternatives Inc., to deliver satellite Internet equipment to Cuban Jews as part of a program funded as part of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which authorized the U.S. government to engage in “democracy building efforts” that would speed the removal of the Castro brothers.
Soon after the passage of Helms-Burton, the government of Cuba outlawed collaboration with the program. In other words, any American government employee or contractor who visited Cuba to advance the Helms-Burton mission would be breaking Cuban law. On his fifth trip to Cuba — on a tourist visa — Gross was arrested. After a trial, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
And then he was, in essence, abandoned by the government that sent him to Cuba.
As it happens, there is an obvious way to obtain Gross’ release. Three Cuban intelligence agents are sitting today in American prisons. They are members of what is known as the “Cuban Five,” a network of spies rounded up in 1998. The Cuban Five were spying mainly on right-wing Cuban dissident groups in Florida. Two of the five have already completed their sentences and have been returned to Cuba. Three remain in prison, and one, the leader of the group, Gerardo Hernandez, was sentenced to two life terms. The Cuban government is desperate to see the return of these men, and would, by all accounts, be open to a trade.
The U.S. should give up the Cuban Five for Gross, especially because its own incompetence caused his imprisonment. It should also negotiate with Cuba over Gross because this is the only way toward normalization.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs