By Frank Calzon in Foreign Affairs (magazine)[a CFR publication]
In “Our Man in Havana,” R. M. Schneiderman suggests that Alan Gross will not be freed from his Cuban prison unless the U.S. State Department shuts down its programs supporting democracy and human rights in Cuba. This conclusion is faulty, if not utterly ridiculous. Gross, who worked for a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor, is serving a 15-year jail sentence for trying to help Havana’s Jewish community connect to the Internet, an act most of the world does not recognize as a crime. In 2009, Gross was seized just before he was scheduled to fly home to the United States and held for 14 months before any charges were filed against him. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson has aptly described him as a “hostage.”
What seems to gall Schneiderman is not Gross’ imprisonment, but rather that Congress mandated the democracy-promotion program in Cuba in the first place. Schneiderman characterizes the U.S. government’s continuation of such programs as a failed opportunity to do away with “the antiquated politics of the Cold War.” He is correct that the programs are modeled on those that successfully cracked the Iron Curtain and that, after the collapse of European communism, were wholeheartedly endorsed by Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, and others. But he is wrong to call the program “antiquated” when Cuba remains a Stalinist-style state. The programs’ fundamental goal remains to break through the Castro regime’s control of information that isolates the Cuban people and keeps them in bondage.
That the democracy-promotion program annoys the Cuban regime does not make it a failure of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, there is no evidence to support Schneiderman’s claim that canceling the program would have freed Gross or produced other tangible benefits. The author recounts a 2010 conversation between Fulton Armstrong, a senior adviser to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and “high-level Cuban officials.” Armstrong is quoted as telling the Cubans that the democracy programs were “stupid.” He continued, “We’re cleaning them up. Just give us time, because politically we can’t kill them.” Armstrong then asked, “Will this help you release Alan Gross?” to which he believes the Cubans said yes. This misses the fact that when it comes to Cuba, only two people are empowered to say yes — Raúl and Fidel Castro. And the Castros have a long history of biting any hand of friendship extended to them.
Indeed, even though Congress placed a hold on funding for the democracy program in 2010, Gross was tried and sentenced in March 2011. Washington may have had other reasons to think Cuba would be releasing Gross, but he did not come home with either former President Jimmy Carter nor Richardson, both of whom traveled to Havana.
By now, this story should be all too familiar. As president, Carter attempted reconciliation, establishing the U.S. Special Interests Section in Havana and making efforts at establishing some form of diplomatic relations. Castro’s response was to export thousands of prison inmates and patients from insane asylums to Florida, to send Cuban troops to fight a war in Angola in support of Soviet interests, and to assist anti-American insurgencies in Central America. Later, when U.S. President Bill Clinton again sought to improve relations, Fidel ordered two unarmed, civilian American aircraft shot down over the Straits of Florida in international waters. In response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempts to reduce the animosity between the two countries by easing trade restrictions and lifting limits on remittances, Raúl Castro — who has taken over for Fidel — not only ignored the president’s suggestion that Cuba reduce its taxes on remittances but also jailed Gross.
Gross is not the only person who has been punished for supporting human rights on the island. The regime has detained and expelled many visitors who dared to meet with dissidents. Among them were the current foreign minister of the Czech Republic; a cabinet secretary from Spain; Dutch, German, and European parliament members; journalists; and human rights activists. Gross’ imprisonment — set against the background of the continued repression of Cubans, the harsh punishment meted out to dissidents, and the refusal to allow prison inspections by international organizations — should serve as a wake-up call to those proposing unilateral concessions for the sake of normalization with Havana. Appeasement does not discourage the bad behavior of dictators; it emboldens it.
The time to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba will come only when Havana begins taking steps toward democracy and a free-market economy and reconsiders its alliances with North Korea, Syria, and other U.S. adversaries. Releasing Gross would be one indication that Cuba is ready to change. Obama ought to tell Raúl Castro that the United States holds him personally responsible for Gross’ well-being. Similarly, policy decisions that have increased and allowed remittances and encouraged American tourists to travel to the island can be reversed and revisited. Cuba has always played hardball, and if Castro’s government wants to continue its ways, the United States is not without rackets.