When Pope Benedict XVI meets with Raul and Fidel Castro this week, he should urge Cuba to release American Alan Gross from the remainder of his harsh 15 year prison term. Gross was arrested two years ago for smuggling illegal cell phones and other technology to Cuba's small Jewish community.
Gross was funded to the tune of $500,000 by the U.S. Government under a statute calling for regime change in Cuba. The State Department views Gross's work as democratic and humanitarian. The Cubans view Gross as a U.S. agent seeking to ferment revolution.
Both countries are wrong.
But Gross has been in prison long enough. Two years is sufficient.
The Cubans have been so tough on Gross because of their fury and frustration over the case of the Cuban Five.
In 1959 Fidel Castro was outraged by the inability of the U.S. government to stop Cuban exile terrorist groups in Miami from planning and executing a series of terrorist bombings of innocent civilians in Cuba.
Castro dispatched five spies to Florida with instructions to infiltrate these terrorist groups and disrupt their operations. After their arrest, Cuban officials said, "Thanks to the work of the Five, Cuba was able to share with the FBI -- with the approval of President Bill Clinton -- extensive details on the campaign of terror being planned and executed."
Cuba admits sending the spies, but said it did so only to save the lives of innocent civilians from terrorists.
Clearly the Cubans were not spying on the U.S. Government, nor were they a threat to the United States; they were spying on right wing exile Cuban terrorists. The FBI had been quietly monitoring the spies' activities for several years.
Nevertheless, after the Cuban military shot down a small exile plane that had flown over Cuba, enraged Cuban exiles brought intense political pressure on the FBI to arrest Castro's agents. The Cuban spies were convicted in a Kangaroo court in Miami and some were given absurd, unusually long prison sentences of two life terms plus 15 years. How could anyone expect anything else in a highly politicized Miami trial?
Why wasn't the trial moved? This is the question that Amnesty International asked in a 2010 plea. The organization raised serious doubts about the fairness of the proceedings leading to their conviction" and called for clemency.
On May 27, 2005, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights criticized the U.S. for not providing a fair trial to the Cuban Five as defined in article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party.
Eight international Nobel Prize winners including Desmond Tutu, Nadine Gordimer, and Günter Grass wrote to the U.S. Attorney General calling for freedom for the Cuban Five.
Four of the Cuban Five have now been in prison for 13 years, (one Rene Gonzalez was paroled recently) and there is a worldwide movement to free them. In Cuba and in most of the world, the Cubans are considered heroes because they risked their lives to protect innocent civilians from anti Castro terrorists.
I would certainly hope that our CIA has thousands of agents abroad infiltrating terrorist groups seeking to kill Americans. Imagine what the U.S. reactions would be if Italy or Egypt imprisoned anti terrorists CIA agents for a long period of time?
Of course, the U.S. has a long open history of financing, and training anti-Castro terrorists. One of the terrorists the U.S. trained and paid, Luis Posada, set off many bombs in Havana killing foreign tourists, and he confessed to me that he blew up a civilian airplane killing 76 innocent passengers. He is now living happily in Miami painting pastoral scenes of pre- Castro Cuba after the Justice Department made a half-hearted attempt to deport him.
We can hope that Raul Castro hears the Pope's pleas to free Alan Gross and to implement other human rights reforms.
This Pope's visit is not expected to bring about the type of reforms that Pope John Paul II brought about when he met with Fidel Castro in 1998. Those reforms led to the restoration of Christmas on the Island and the freeing of many political prisoners. Benedict is not the champion of social justice that Pope John was.
But now Benedict has the opportunity to show his compassion. After calling for the release of Gross, he should likewise call on President Obama to figure out some way to release the rest of the Cuban Five as a quid pro quo for Gross's release and other humanitarian gestures on the part of Castro.
It must be done quietly in this presidential election year, given the pivotal nature of Florida's electoral votes.
The harsh sentences for the Cuban Five are a wrong and never should have happened and must be righted as soon as possible.
Fourteen years ago, Pope John Paul II said, "May Cuba, with all its potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
photo courtesy of nytimes.com
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