After five years in a Cuban prison, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) employee Alan Gross reports that he is losing his will to live. Gross, a U.S. citizen arrested in April 2009, was involved in a project that purported to open web access on the island, but his arrest warrant indicted him for attempts to destabilize the Cuban government.
Gross's imprisonment is yet another dispute that impedes the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, after a 50-year embargo. His tragic story is an opportunity to reexamine the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic crisis, which has raged on for far too long -- with much misunderstanding, overreaction, secrecy, and paranoia along the way.
U.S. officials are reluctant to negotiate with the Cubans, who arrested one of their citizens on grounds that run counter to U.S. rights to free speech and a fair trial. On the other hand, Cuban officials doubt U.S. intentions -- in light of the USAID controversy that leaked in April.
USAID, under the guise of promoting democracy in developing nations around the globe, came under fire when news outlets reported that the agency created a secret, anonymous Twitter-like social media platform to stir "civil unrest." However, recent developments suggest the news may have been exaggerated.
When it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations -- a history wrought with covert coup plans, bureaucratic missteps, and Cold War-era paranoia -- one struggles to know what to believe.
Cuba Policy Frozen in Time
What is clear, though, is that U.S.-Cuba relations are stuck in a time warp. Gross's arrest coincided with the 50th anniversary of Castro's revolution. The embargo, established in 1960 after Cuba nationalized industries with U.S. holdings, has failed to either destabilize the Cuban government or benefit the Cuban people. On the other hand, as José Azel argues, the 190 countries that do trade with Cuba have not aided this goal either.
Fifty years have passed, and yet our economic and diplomatic policies on both sides of the equation have remained virtually unchanged. Cold War-era isolation, along with trade and travel embargoes, remain the status quo. The UN General Assembly has adopted 22 consecutive resolutions against the "blockade." Meanwhile, Cuba does not provide accurate GDP indicators that would allow an assessment of conditions on the island.
Since 2008, President Raúl Castro, and his brother Fidel, have supported slight liberalization in Cuba, including minority holdings for private companies on the island. Such reforms have included increased access to consumer goods, loosened restrictions on ownership and travel, and rights to buy and sell real estate.
However, real estate agents and lawyers remain illegal -- a Kafkaesque twist on a supposed reform. According to New York Times columnist Damien Cave, this has resulted in "handcuffed capitalism: highly regulated competitive markets for low-skilled, small family businesses."
Though the U.S. media may have recognized these changes, little has changed from a policy perspective. In Cuba, U.S. officials sees a disagreeable partner that is mistrustful and openly hostile. Gross's arrest lends credence to this point of view.
However, a World Public Opinion poll suggests that 69 percent of U.S. Americans support the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba -- even if their voice is overshadowed by the opposition of hardline Cuban-Americans (PDF, p.2). Though such figures are not always reliable, a wide range of polling data suggests that the majority of U.S. Americans support some kind of policy change.
Others have argued that, regardless, democratic reforms in Cuba, along with the weakening of its allies (such as Venezuela), will eventually lead to a diplomatic relationship between the two nations. This appears to be the stance of Raúl Castro, who defends his reforms as "slow but steady."
Travel Restrictions Shrouded in Bureaucracy
The Obama administration's loosening of travel restrictions to Cuba echo Castro's "slow but steady" approach. Independent tourist travel to Cuba is prohibited, and tourists face the threat of criminal prosecution upon return to the United States. The only opportunity for tourist travel is through a handful of pre-approved tourist companies, which charge huge overhead fees to give a small number of travelers the opportunity to visit Cuba.
A typical week-long trip costs US$5,000 -- and even then, travelers are barred from participating in purely recreational activities, like the ever-subversive beach visit. For business and education-related work, U.S. citizens must obtain specific permission from Cuban and U.S. officials. Once approved, they also face onerous restrictions including spending limits, strict asset controls, and mandatory medical insurance from a non-U.S. company.
The expenditures behind the imposition of these bureaucratic limits are unnecessary, wasteful, and harmful to U.S. global diplomacy. Claims from U.S. officials that they cannot in good conscience support an authoritarian nation that deprives her citizens of basic rights ring hollow. Our diplomatic and financial support for autocratic regimes that serve U.S. interests is prevalent around the globe.
It is telling that recent reforms on Obama's end, though extremely limited, constituted the most substantial diplomatic change between the two countries in 50 years -- yet his administration still deems independent tourist travel to Cuba a criminal offense. Only Cuban-Americans are allowed to travel freely to and from Cuba to visit family and send remittances.
Reestablish Diplomatic Ties
Voices from ordinary citizens to the United Nations to mainstream media sources have advocated for the reestablishment of ties between the United States and Cuba. An open letter to President Obama, signed by 44 policy-reform advocates and former U.S. officials, released in April claimed that allowing for open tourism would give "greater freedom to private organizations and individuals to directly and indirectly serve as catalysts for meaningful change in Cuba."
But inflated bureaucracy, paranoia, and overzealous state control on both sides of the equation make any changes in the near future unlikely. The rhetoric of the Cuban government remains largely suspicious of the United States and hostile to its advances. Mutual mistrust between the two is not unfounded, as the USAID situation and subsequent imprisonment of Alan Gross demonstrates. Obama has refused multiple appeals to oversee Gross's release, as he seems to both deny and accept USAID's role in covert meddling in Cuba -- all the while lending support to Cuban claims of U.S. secrecy and infiltration.
The futile embargo has caused many unnecessary tragedies, arrests, deaths, and hardships -- not to mention mountains of wasted money. Piecemeal reforms mean the status quo of secrecy and hostility remains. Last week, Gross's lawyer reported that Gross was making arrangements to say goodbye to his wife and children -- a tragic situation reflecting 50 years of botched, immature, and absurd policy.
This post originally appeared in the PanAm Post.