The pieces are in place.
Will the U.S. and Cuba play them?
The fourth anniversary of the imprisonment of Alan Gross marked a fundamental shift in discourse which provides President Obama with the moral and political space to negotiate with Cuba for his release.
Stephen B. Kaplitt, a special assistant to the general counsel of USAID from 2004-2007, and a senior adviser in the State Department from 2007-2009 has written in Politico.:
Alan Gross is an untrained civilian who was put in harm's way by his own government. His case presents a simple question that has nothing to do with the wisdom of U.S. policy toward Cuba: Will the U.S. government shoulder its responsibility for sending Gross to Cuba and do whatever is necessary to bring him home?
For the first time, Judy Gross directed a demonstration at the place a decision must be made that will free her husband, the White House.
The day before she wrote in USA Today:
As we approach the four-year anniversary of Alan's arrest, imprisonment, and nightmare, I hope that the United States and Cuban governments will hear my plea. I ask my country - Alan's country - the country he was serving - and my president: please do what it takes to bring my husband home. Alan went to Cuba on behalf of our government, and it is up to our government to secure his safe return to his family.
At the demonstration she read a letter from Alan to the president that appeared on the Washington Post web site.
With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government - the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare - has abandoned me. Officials in your administration have expressed sympathy and called for my unconditional release, and I very much appreciate that. But it has not brought me home.
It is clear to me, Mr. President, that only with your personal involvement can my release be secured. I know that your administration and prior administrations have taken extraordinary steps to obtain the release of other U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad - even citizens who were not arrested for their work on behalf of their country. I ask that you also take action to secure my release,
Judy and Alan gave the moral justification, even obligation, for the president to act.
On the same day a letter signed by two-thirds of the Senate was released that gave the president political room to negotiate with Cuba:
We are united in our belief that Mr. Gross' freedom is a humanitarian priority. We urge you to act expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain his release, and we stand ready to support your Administration in pursuit of this worthy goal.
The letter is remarkably bipartisan and includes some real surprises like Senators Ted Cruz from Texas and Bill Nelson from Florida.
Ultra hard-line Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio and the US-Cuba Democracy PAC lobbyists funding them correctly saw the significance of Leahy's initiative and tried to undermine it with disingenous attacks and an opposition letter. Their 14 signers paled in comparison with Leahy's 66, and were a precipitous decline from unanimous Senate support one year ago for similar aspirational rhetoric that accomplished nothing.
"Therefore as you and your Administration take meaningful steps to bring Mr. Gross home, we urge you to continue working for Alan Gross' immediate and unconditional release."
Several Senators signed both letters: Blunt, Casey, Schumer, Manchin, Cruz, and Nelson. New Jersey freshman Senator Corey Booker compromised his progressive credentials by only signing Menendez-Rubio.
Official reactions in both the U.S. and Cuba to the change could either be regarded as stuck in the past or public posturing for negotiating purposes.
The State Department rolled out tired talking points, dissembling about Gross's innocence:
Tomorrow, development worker Alan Gross will begin a fifth year of unjustified imprisonment in Cuba. ... We reiterate our call on the Cuban Government, echoing foreign leaders and even Cuba's allies, to release Alan Gross immediately and unconditionally.
The White House spokesman was non-responsive to Judy and Alan and adhered to the same dishonest account of Alan's work (on video only), as reported by CBS:
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama is "personally engaged" in working toward the release of Alan Gross...But Carney said he was not sure if the president had read a letter from Mr. Gross ...
Carney said during Tuesday's White House briefing. "The president has himself personally engaged foreign leaders and other international figures to use their influence with Cuba to promote Mr. Gross's release.
Who are the foreign leaders cited by the White House and State, and why should they pay any attention to a government that totally discounts their strong opposition to the diplomatic and economic embargo? Reporters didn't ask.
Josefina Vidal, Director General for the United States in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, acknowledged significant changes were taking place in Washington but the goals she expressed sounded like virtual preconditions. Perhaps she was intentionally mirroring the State Department's posturing by premising the complete innocence of the Cuban 5 and total guilt of Alan Gross:
The Cuban government reiterates its readiness to immediately establish a dialogue with the United States government to find a solution to the case of Mr. Gross on a reciprocal basis, and which addresses the humanitarian concerns of Cuba relating to the case of the four Cuban antiterrorist fighters in prison in the United States.
Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González , who are part of the Cuban Five group, serve long and unjust prison sentences for crimes they did not commit and which were never proved.
A key question on the Cuban side is whether addressing humanitarian concerns requires a one for four swap or other factors are in play.
A key question for the US is whether it finally takes responsibility for Alan's illegal actions and therefore is prepared to make some kind of deal to achieve his release.
Providing context for hope are remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry at a program organized by the Interamerican Dialog in the hall of the Organization of American States.
He reburied the Monroe Doctrine, ignoring the contradiction with his later interventionist judgements about Cuba. (Or was he subtly signaling an inconsistency that offers the basis for a more fundamental rethink?)
Most significantly Kerry said:
Since President Obama took office, the Administration has started to search for a new beginning with Cuba. As he said just last week, when it comes to our relationship with Cuba, we have to be creative, we have to be thoughtful, and we have to continue to update our policies.
Our governments are finding some cooperation on common interests at this point in time. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans visit Havana, and hundreds of millions of dollars in trade and remittances flow from the United States to Cuba. We are committed to this human interchange, and in the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors. They are ambassadors of our ideals, of our values, of our beliefs.
Dr. Richard Feinberg, a former National Security Council official, offered an optimistic reading of Kerry's speech in a Miami Herald op ed.
Neither Obama nor Kerry have told us just what new initiatives they may be contemplating, as they seek to build on their initial successes in nudging Cuba toward more pragmatic diplomacy and more forward-looking economic reforms. But we should read in their diplo-speak that they are signaling new approaches: rhetoric and policies that recognize that Cuba is changing before our eyes, that favor selective engagement over blanket sanctions, and that appreciate that gradual economic change in Cuba today is the more realistic path toward political evolution tomorrow.
Sitting at the OAS, one jetlagged day back from China and Vietnam, I was frustrated Kerry did not announce concrete changes, for example following through on his positive words about travel. In retrospect his was the kind of language that lays the ground not just for solving one problem but for a broader resetting of parameters.
Kerry hinted that the process is already underway at a press conference on December 3d in Brussels:
In the case of Mr. Gross, we've had any number of initiatives and outreaches over the last several years and engagement with a number of different individuals who have traveled to Cuba, met with people individually there and elsewhere. And we are currently engaged in some discussions regarding that, which I''m not at liberty to go into in any kind of detail. [...]
But these things are often best resolved in quiet diplomacy, under the radar screen, behind the scenes, and that is exactly what we have been pursuing.
It would be extraordinary if the same kind of secret diplomacy has been going on with Cuba as was astutely undertaken with Iran for months, to the shock and dismay of interest groups invested in unceasing conflict.
Will the Administration then deliver on a frequent promise reiterated by Jay Carney?
"Mr. Gross's detention remains an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba,"
No doubt I am prone to project too much of my Vietnam normalization experience into Cuba, but it would not surprise me if Secretary Kerry and President Obama are taking a leaf from the playbook of how conditions were created by Senators Kerry and McCain to pressure/enable President Clinton to normalize relations with Vietnam. (A prime example is their Senate resolution favoring the end of the embargo.)
One thing is guaranteed. If Alan Gross comes home and the optimistic bilateral scenario of the beginning of the Adminstration is reborn, folks on the left and right in both countries will tell us it is really not happening or is a more devious path to the same evil end.
Links and Resources
A petition to the President supporting negotiations with Cuba to free Alan Gross during the holidays.
"Diplomacy Derailed" and "Failure Compounded", two short videos by investigative journalist Tracey Eaton
"Reasons...Knowledge, Conscience and Realities" 30 minute Cuban made independent video directed by Lizette Vila with English subtitles documenting the emergence of social entrepreneurs in Cuba's recently changing economy.
"For a Socially Responsible University" Universidad 2014, Cuba's 9th International Congress on Higher Education, February 10-14, 2014 (contact email@example.com if you want to attend or to have literature distributed at our booth)
Must reads (and shares):
Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana by Marc Frank
What I Learned About Cuba By Going To Cuba by Antonio Zamora