I just returned from a week in Cuba on a people-to-people exchange tour to meet with members of Jewish communities in several cities and to learn about the country.
It has intrigued me that this weak and crumbling country has the mighty United States so terrified that we would rather deal with Vietnam, North Korea, Syria and Iran before talking to the Castro regime. Much is the result of politicians of both parties who fear the disproportionate power wielded by a small but influential and vindictive émigré community, primarily in south Florida.
Fidel Castro, 85, is in failing health and has turned over the presidency to his brother, Raul, 80. The Castro era is over, we heard from academics and others we met, and the country is entering a period of transition; the Americans are very likely to miss an opportunity to help shape the future because our policy is driven by forces more concerned with revenge on the Castros and getting back property lost in the 1959 revolution.
Cuba is a failed state with a deteriorating economy and infrastructure. It is said that three buildings collapse every day in Havana. More than half a century after the revolution, Cubans still have food rationing and extensive shortages of essential commodities including medicines.
Participants in Jewish missions are asked to bring such basic staples as medicines, toiletries, toothpaste, soap, first aid kits, as well as sports equipment, musical instrument and art supplies, dance shoes and attire for children. Medicines of any kind go to the Patranato, the large Havana synagogue which operates a community pharmacy.
Many people can’t get electricity around the clock. The plumbing is often in disrepair and unreliable. The government controls the media and there is no independent news coverage. Only the hotels for foreign tourists and the few Cubans with power and money can get foreign cable news; CNN and China’s CCTV broadcast English and Spanish channels, when it is working.
Internet service is rare, antiquated, expensive, tightly controlled and at the heart of a Cuban-American dispute that involves Jewish communities in both countries.
Alan Gross, from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Potomac, MD, was a subcontractor hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of an American initiative to promote democracy by bringing computer and communications equipment for the Cuban Jewish community.
He made five trips in 2009 – the year after the ban on ownership of computers and mobile phones was lifted – until he was arrested as he prepared to leave on December 3 and charged with bringing in electronic equipment without the required Cuban government permits.
He had traveled that year with several missions sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, asking participants to put small items like modems, cables, cell phones in the carry-on bags – but not checked luggage where it might be inspected – and return it to him after leaving the airport. Gross brought the larger items and apparently had no trouble getting them into the country. Their bus would drop him at his hotel and they wouldn’t see him again until boarding their return flights.
When they found out about Gross’s arrest, some of those who had helped him and been assured there was no risk, felt they’d been needlessly put at risk.
When I arrived in Cuba earlier this month I had to fill out a customs form asking whether I was bringing in satellite or other communications equipment. I was not.
Gross was accused of attempting to “undermine the integrity and independence” of Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Cuban President Raul Castro told two visiting U.S. senators in February that Gross “was no spy,” but he refused the request of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) to let them take him home.
My conversations with Cubans I met – no government officials, per se, but all meetings had to be approved by the government – left no doubt that the real motivation behind Gross’s arrest was very likely a swap for five Cuban intelligence agents serving prison sentences in the United States.
One of those Cubans, Rene Gonzalez, was paroled and allowed to return to Cuba for 15 days to visit his terminally ill brother, prompting efforts to persuade the Cubans to reciprocate by letting Gross visit his mother, 90, who has inoperable lung cancer, and his daughter who has breast cancer. There was hope that both men would be able to stay at home and not return, but the Castro government refused. Gonzales returned to Florida this week.
Gross, who gets one phone call a week, used last week’s to contact NBC’s Andrea Mitchell with a simple plea, “Get me the hell out of here.” He told her, as his family and friends continue to insist, “I did nothing legally or morally wrong.”
The Cubans have suggested a five-for-one swap, which under standards set by the Israeli government in exchanging a single prisoner for over a thousand terrorists, doesn’t seem like much. But the Cuban Five, who were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder and other crimes, are symbolically more important to both governments.
A swap for Gross would be popular in the Jewish community but not in the Cuban-American community, which rails against any deals with the “terrorist regime” in Havana, especially since it could mean handing the Castros a major propaganda victory.
Signs extolling the five as heroes are seen around Cuba and their giant size portraits are on the memorial to revolutionary hero Che Guevara.
And in this volatile political year, where Florida’s electoral votes could be decisive, a swap is highly unlikely.
Meanwhile, it seems unlikely the Cubans will send Alan Gross home any time soon. Like relations between the two countries, he is being held hostage to outmoded, counterproductive and politically motivated policies.