Jesse Jackson Hopes to See Imprisoned American Alan Gross in Cuba, Meet with Religious Leaders Reply

By Peter Orsi, Associated Press

HAVANA – The Rev. Jesse Jackson travelled to Cuba Friday for talks with the island’s religious leaders and said he hopes to visit Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor serving a 15-year sentence in the Caribbean nation.

In brief comments outside a seaside Havana hotel, Jackson told reporters he intended to meet with local clergy about their concerns for the needs of the poor, and to discuss relations between Cuba, the United States and the rest of the Caribbean.

Asked whether he would meet with Gross, Jackson said: “I would like to.”

Gross was arrested in December 2009 after authorities caught him importing restricted communications equipment into the country.

He said he was only setting up Internet networks for island Jewish groups, but a court convicted him on a statute governing crimes against the state and sentenced him to 15 years.

The case threw already cool U.S.-Cuba relations into a deep freeze, although there have been signs of some thawing this year.

Jackson has travelled to Yugoslavia, Syria and Iraq in the past to help gain freedom for U.S. citizens jailed there.

In March 2011, shortly before Gross’ trial, he appealed to Cuba to release the man on humanitarian grounds and offered to help mediate.

Former President Jimmy Carter came to Havana later that month, but left without Gross.

In September 2011, the former governor of New Mexico and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, made a high profile visit to try to negotiate Gross’ release.

But the trip abruptly fell apart amid mutual recriminations as Richardson wasn’t even allowed to see Gross, and referred to him in public comments as a “hostage.”

Jackson has visited Cuba on several occasions and met with both former President Fidel Castro and current President Raul Castro. In 1984, he helped negotiate the release of 26 Cuban prisoners. Most of them went into exile.

On Friday, Jackson said he hopes to help continue healing the wounds of a five-decade divide between islanders and exiles.

“It’s good to be back to Cuba again,” Jackson said. “We’ve been here over the years. We have developed kinships with many Cuban-Americans trying to build Cuban-Cuban American family reunification.”

“We hope for the day we will have the walls down, the bridges built,” he said.

Havana Continues Pressing For Swap: One Hostage For 5 Spies Reply

Cuba’s Raul Castro Meets with U.S. Congressional Delegation

By Marc Frank | Reuters

HAVANA (Reuters) – A seven-member U.S. congressional delegation met on Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro, official media reported, to improve relations that have been strained since U.S. government contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned there in 2009. Members of the group, which arrived on Monday, also met with Gross, said a delegation member who asked not to be identified.

A statement issued by the Cuban government on Tuesday said Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met first with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to discuss “issues of interest for both countries,” then held talks with other lawmakers. Leahy met with Castro, Rodriguez and Gross last year. The senator, who spoke with reporters on Monday, said Gross’s fate and reforms under way in Cuba would top the group’s agenda.

The Cuban statement, released Tuesday with video of the meeting, said the U.S. delegation also held meetings with parliament president Ricardo Alarcon and Rodriguez. Leahy was expected to issue a statement on Wednesday. Other members of the delegation included Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents Gross’ district in Maryland.

Gross, 63, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive. The case halted a brief detente in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations. Cuba has linked Gross’ fate to that of five agents imprisoned in the late 1990s for infiltrating Miami exile organizations and U.S. military bases. The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were sentenced to long terms, ranging from 15 years to life, and are considered heroes in Cuba.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, met with Rodriguez in New York in 2010 to discuss the Gross case, according to Foreign Affairs magazine. Former President Jimmy Carter also met with Raul Castro in Havana in 2011. The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody. Under the 1996 ‘Helms-Burton’ law, U.S. sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba’s one-party Communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government.

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

Alan Gross, Jailed Jewish Contractor, Gets New Hope as Lawmakers Arrive in Cuba 1

7 Members of Congress Land in Havana for Talks With Castro

(Reuters) A seven-member delegation of U.S. lawmakers arrived in Cuba on Monday in the latest effort to move forward political relations that have been at a standstill since U.S. government contractor Alan Gross was imprisoned there in 2009. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who saw Gross and met with Cuban President Raul Castro and other high-ranking officials a year ago, is leading the group of five senators and two members of the House of Representatives on a three-day visit to communist Cuba.

Despite the stalemate, more people traveled between the two countries in 2012, cash remittances sent to the island also increased, as did food-for-cash sales under a 2000 amendment to the U.S. trade embargo. Between 450,000 and 500,000 Cuban Americans and Americans visited Cuba, according to tourism industry sources, and food sales increased by $100 million to $457 million, making the United States one of Cuba’s top 10 trading partners and second provider of tourists after Canada.

“Every one of us has an interest in Cuba,” Leahy, of Vermont, said upon arrival. “We all want to see relations improve and both sides take steps in that direction,” he said. Leahy said the delegation would like to take Gross with them when it leaves for Haiti on Wednesday, but doubted that was possible. “There are obvious problems between our two countries, but we are not here to negotiate. We are here to listen and then go back home and talk about what we see,” he said.

The lawmakers, all Democrats except for Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, include congressman Chris Van Hollen who represents Gross’s district in Maryland, Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. Members of the group said they planned to meet with Gross, parliament president Ricardo Alarcon, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and perhaps Raul Castro.

They will also visit famed U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway’s estate on the outskirts of Havana and meet with members of the diplomatic corps.

KERRY HAD DISCUSSED GROSS CASE

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, reportedly met with Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister, in New York in 2010 to discuss the Gross case, according to Foreign Affairs magazine. Former President James Carter also met with Raul Castro in Havana in 2011. Delegation members said they were also interested in reforms in Cuba.
President Castro has lifted most travel restrictions and freed Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars over the past year, even as he accelerates efforts to reform the Soviet-style economy in a more market-friendly direction.

The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody. In addition, under the 1996 ‘Helms-Burton’ law, sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba’s one-party communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government. Gross, 63, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive. The case put the brakes on a brief warming in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations during the first 11 months of President Barack Obama’s first term in office. Cuba has linked Gross’ fate to that of five agents imprisoned in the late 1990s for infiltrating Miami exile organizations and U.S. military bases. The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were sentenced to long terms ranging from 15 years to life and are considered heroes in Cuba.

The Castros’ Captive: Why Appeasing Havana Won’t Free Alan Gross 2

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.