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Cuba Travel and the Alan Gross Case: A Report From Havana

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I am back from a week in Cuba that focused on how to strengthen implementation on their side of the improvement in travel regulations announced by President Obama on January 14th. My focus was on practical implications, in particular the opportunity provided by the advance beyond the Clinton Administration of general licenses for academic and religiously related trips.

The Cubans with whom I met reacted quite favorably to the new policy and are preparing to receive a new wave of purposeful visitors. The University of Havana reportedly has already received inquiries from several hundred US universities wishing to collaborate. The challenge will be how to maintain its primary role, educating Cubans, as well as how to overcome the skepticism of some colleagues.

There was disappointment that the only US rationale given for the new regulations was system change in Cuba. Moreover my interlocutors noted the absence of any recognition that people-to-people travel inherently seeks to learn from and about the country visited and to create mutual understanding and trust. They recognize but regret US domestic political reasons for the one-dimensional justification.

Unfortunately such language provides ammunition for those in Cuba who resist change as strongly as the extremist minority in the Cuban American community that criticized the President's action. In Cuba the debate is ongoing about how much the Obama Administration represents a real departure or only a tactical adjustment. If they are moving along a socio-economic path resembling Vietnam's adoption of doi moi ("renovation"), are we prepared to treat them with the respect that we give to Vietnam, i.e. critical friendship rather than hostile intervention?

Cuban doubts can be seen in the ambivalent speech of the Minister of Higher Education on January 27th. He warned (article in Spanish) of two-faced US intentions to foster a brain drain yet expressed frustration about the embargo denying normal access for Cubans to our knowledge and research.

Alan Gross Case

While I expect that the positive experience of exchanges will overcome ingrained suspicion about our motives and rhetoric, I fear a more serious problem might stem from US reaction to charges finally being announced against Alan Gross.

Paul Haven's widely distributed AP story from Havana mistakenly argued, "The decision to seek such a long jail term is certain to be a major setback for U.S.-Cuban relations, which had seemed to be improving only a few weeks ago."

This could be an unnecessarily self-fulfilling prophecy.

At the Brookings Institution a few days before semi-annual migration talks, Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela said that the obstacle to movement was that Mr. Gross had not been charged, not that he was still detained.

My question: Mr. Secretary, there have been many, many news reports since August that there was going to be an announcement of people to people travel. And even this morning the Miami Herald suggested you were going to talk about that today. So I'm wondering, do you have something to say?

His answer: Look, on Cuba, the -- we continue to have -- the migration talks are going to take place next week. We continue to have a conversation with them. We've made it clear to the Cuban authorities that it's very difficult to move to the -- to greater engagement with -- in the context where they have continued to hold Alan Gross after a year's gone by without charges.... the holding of an American citizen without preferring any kind of charges for over a year, I mean, that's just something that makes it very difficult for us to even think about having a conversation with them. As I said in my remarks, the administration has moved to see how we can strengthen people to people engagement. That still tends to be our -- that is still our objective.

Secretary Valenzuela's words may have reflected ongoing bilateral discussions or actually prompted the Cubans to convey positive information about the status and disposition of Alan's case a few days later at the talks in Havana, as I reported in thehavananote blog.

The senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said the Cuban government now expected Gross to be charged and tried. The official, who spoke following migration talks on Wednesday in Havana between U.S. and Cuban delegations, did not give a time frame.

"I am cautiously optimistic because of things we hear that that would be the case," the official said when asked if Gross would be released and sent home after being tried, adding that Cuban officials had made "encouraging noises."

AFP contributed to the confusion shortly before I left Cuba by reporting that "the White House on Friday slammed Cuba's decision to seek 20 years in prison for a US contractor arrested on espionage charges, saying the move 'compounds the injustice' he has already suffered."

(Espionage was not mentioned in the Granma notice, nor has it figured in Cuban discussions of the case.)

Because of the harshness of then White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' statement, some Cubans may feel they were misled or even set up and be less inclined to resolve the case quickly and positively.

One official I met in Havana did note that they had responded to US urging that Alan be charged and wondered what Washington had expected the charges would be.

The legal accusation made and the potential severity of the penalty seem to me a natural reflection of the Cuban view that Alan was undertaking an illegal USAID funded program designed to subvert their system. They could hardly have accused him of a misdemeanor for what they consider covert action, even if amateurish. But that does not preclude Alan's release for humanitarian reasons after a trial or confession, especially if they regard him as a victim of a US policy stuck in the past.

A US official needs to say publicly that the US regards charges finally being lodged as a step forward rather than a step backward, even while it disputes their validity and is dismayed by the potential severity of the sentence.

The Cubans obviously have their own information on and interpretation of what Alan was doing under the remit and dollars of the previous administration (see below). Evidence produced in court could show that the Obama administration was misinformed by the contractor, Development Alternatives Incorporated, in terms of the equipment Alan delivered, its source and his recipients. Proceedings may be embarrassing to US officials who have insisted, as State Department spokesman PJ Crowley did again on February 4th, that Alan was simply "a dedicated international development worker who was in Cuba providing support to members of the Cuban Jewish community."

If the evidence is damaging, the White House or State Department should blame self-serving DAI misinformation for their misleading public statements. I doubt it will help Alan's situation if US officials reflexively dispute the evidence or defensively question the legitimacy of Cuba's judicial system.

A new wrinkle was thrown into the political context by an otherwise favorable Reuters report about removal of black flags from the front of the US Interests Section: "U.S. officials have said his conviction would seriously dampen prospects for any further improvement in relations."

Sources in the State Department confirm the issue for bilateral relations is what happens to Alan after trial, not whether he is convicted. They hope that for humanitarian reasons he will be released for time served.

If Alan is able to come home, then what? How should the US respond?

My personal favorites:

* take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism when Sudan is removed;

* allow Cuba to conduct normal international dollar transactions including direct two-way transfers between US and Cuban banks;

* stop encouraging Cuban doctors and nurses serving in third countries to defect;

* provide general licenses for all forms of non-tourist travel, workshops, etc;

* do away with Travel Service Providers;

* and most compelling in humanitarian terms, address the palpable injustice of the overlong imprisonment of the Cuban 5.

As Judy Gross wrote to the Miami Herald, Alan's release could be a real turning point if both governments choose that path: "Do not make Alan's case an excuse to fall further apart, but rather an example of a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations."

My impression from this trip is that Cuba is ready.

Links and Resources:

Leaked Cuban security briefing (or is it disinformation?) on US use of the internet as a weapon for system change. Its psychological framework of resistance to enduring and constant threat suggests the profound challenge of trust building, intrinsically hard to do with the economic warfare of the embargo in place. See on page 4-5 the likely case against Alan Gross. It also appears (pp 11-12) that Cuban officials did not recognize the difference between short term "leadership" scholarships offered by USINT in 2009 and those that simply provided a year of Community College education in substantive disciplines.

Updated analysis of and reports on new regulations for legal purposeful travel to Cuba on the new blog of the Cuba US People to People Partnership.