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Cuba Needs Friends This Holiday Season

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Last Friday, December 3, marked the one year anniversary of Alan Gross' imprisonment in Cuba. At the time of his imprisonment, Gross was a subcontractor for DAI's civil society program in Cuba, funded by the United States Agency of International Development. It is now known that Gross was working with Cuba's small Jewish community, providing them with reading materials, access to information, possibly even internet access. During a week in which companies sold more than $1 billion on Cyber Monday, it is sad but true that the Cuban government's holiday wish list for its citizens excludes Wi-Fi access in homes, Kindles with global 3G or even the latest 4G smartphone with web-based gadgets.

Behind closed doors, Cuba has suggested a prisoner swap for Gross. Cuba will hand over Gross if the United States returns the "Cuban Five," a group of Cuban nationals who were convicted of espionage in the United States. Cuba admits the Five are intelligence officers who were, at minimum, gathering information for the Cuban government while living in the United States. The Obama administration denies that Gross was a spy and therefore refuses to discuss a prisoner swap. All of this, however, confuses the more fundamental issue.

A mere 90 miles separates the two countries but Cuba is neither an ally nor a strategic interest for the United States. The Cold War ended two decades ago, and the United States, NATO and even former communist enemies have all moved onto different ideological and military battles. Global warming, terrorist threats and the global economic downturn occupy the best minds in government.

Today's Cuba lacks long-standing allies that can help it develop in the post-Fidel era. Cuba's closest friend and ally is Venezuela but the Cubans do not want to rely solely on subsidized oil for economic survival. While Cuba refuses to pursue full and active membership in the Organization for American States, the Bolivarian Alternative Union offers moral support from the political left in Latin America, but no real economic opportunities. Iran provides a basis for common anti-US rhetoric but no real substance in bilateral relations. China and Russia are cozying up to Cuba because of financial and military interests, respectively, but it remains to be seen if long-term alliances will develop. Spain's interest in Cuba is post-colonial and directed towards a European audience.

On the other hand, Raul's reforms could modernize Cuba's ailing economy and spur much needed domestic growth. The release of political prisoners could lead to increased dialogue and trade with potential friends and former communist allies in the European Union. Cuba supporters in the United States, including in Congress, are waiting for Gross' release to resume dialogue and bilateral engagement under Obama. The difficulty for Raul is to save face after holding Gross without formal charges for a year.

So here is an idea: Release Gross on humanitarian grounds. Release him because his health is poor and he has lost nearly 100 lbs. Release him because he should be with his family for Hanukkah. Release him because he is not a spy and Cuba has nothing to gain by keeping a civilian in prison. But release him, so that Cuba can begin to crawl out of insignificance and finally enter the 21st Century.