The campaign to free Alan Gross, a Jewish contract worker jailed in Cuba for almost three years, has dramatically ramped up since President Obama’s reelection.
But experts warn that the latest salvos in the battle to free Gross, led by his wife, Judy, and a prominent human rights lawyer, are scattershot and potentially counterproductive.
“There is not a single, self-respecting, knowledgeable Cuba expert who thinks this new strategy is comprehensive or has a snowball’s chance of working,” said Fulton Armstrong, a former national intelligence officer for Latin America at the CIA.
“This is a very fluid moment,” added Julia Sweig, a Latin America specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is a moment when the Obama administration should well be getting in a room and negotiating the terms of [Gross’s] release. I would hate to see any of this public pressure diminish or hurt that environment.”
The Gross family, led by lawyer Peter Kahn, started turning up the heat on the administration and on the Cuban government at the beginning of this year, taking to newspapers and television to blast both sides for using Gross as a pawn in U.S.-Cuba brinksmanship.
Since the presidential election, on November 6, the campaign has become even fiercer.
On November 11, Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer, and Judy Gross, staged a protest in Florida outside of a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. The same day, they released a letter from more than 500 rabbis to Cuban leader Raul Castro, calling for Alan’s release on humanitarian grounds and they reported Cuba to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture claiming that an insufficient amount of medical attention they said was being given to Alan constituted torture.
On November 16, another lawyer acting on behalf of the Gross family, sued the U.S. government and Development Alternatives Inc, the contractor that sent Gross to Cuba. The suit, seeking $60 million, claimed that DAI and the United States Agency for International Development negligently allowed Gross to make repeated trips to Cuba despite knowing of “specific risks” to his safety.
Armstrong said the lawsuit alone had the potential to undermine Gross’s case.
Gross has consistently insisted that his work in Cuba was an innocent attempt to improve internet access for the island’s tiny Jewish community. But the lawsuit claims USAID and DAI ignored repeated warnings from Gross that his work appeared to be drawing unwanted Cuban attention. It also claims that Gross should have been given counter intelligence training.
“This makes it sound like he was going in to do sensitive operations of a covert nature,” Armstrong said. “It’s not an admission he was doing intelligence…but it plays further into Cuban government hands that what he was doing was an intelligence style operation, [that] he knew he had been detected and that it was wrong.”
The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia by lawyer Scott Gilbert.
A DAI spokesman said the contractor was “disappointed” that the Gross family had filed a lawsuit. “We would like to address the numerous disagreements we have with the content of the complaint,” the spokesman said. “(But) doing so will not advance the cause of bringing Alan home, which remains our highest priority.”
A State Department spokesman referred questions to the Justice Department late on Friday.
The human rights lawyer, Genser, who has led the humanitarian campaign to free Gross since he replaced Peter Kahn in mid-July said he was not a part of the lawsuit and that his work was “focused on securing Alan’s freedom.”
Genser has helped liberate prisoners in some of the world’s most authoritarian countries, including Pakistan, Syria and Nicaragua. He won most of those cases through a nonprofit he founded ten years ago, Freedom Now, that represented Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi before her release from house arrest in 2010 and that continues to represent Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
He took on Gross’s case through Perseus Strategies, a for-profit company he launched last year that specializes in legal and public relations services for humanitarian campaigns.
Genser’s public campaign has been almost totally focused on pressuring Cuba. His report to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, claims that the continuing Cuban denial of adequate medical care to Gross, who recently developed a mass on his shoulder that Gross’s family say may be cancerous, could “constitute torture.”
In the weeks to come, Genser promises that further public and political pressure will be brought to bear on Cuba. He said his aim is twofold: to send a message to Cuba that the continued detention of Gross will damage Cuba’s reputation and to emphasize that the best way for Cuba to improve relations with the U.S. is to release Gross. But Armstrong, a former senior staff member to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, says such tactics are at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.
Rather than insisting that Gross was wrongly imprisoned, experts say Gross’s backers would do better to take a less confrontational approach towards Cuba and push the White House harder to negotiate his release.
Cuba has hinted that it would be willing to negotiate Gross’s release in return for the freedom of a handful of Cuban agents known as the Cuban Five who were arrested in the U.S. almost 15 years ago. But the State Department has insisted that Gross was doing nothing wrong in Cuba and that the freedom of the Five is not negotiable.
Gross traveled to Cuba five times before he was arrested on December 3, 2009, while working there secretly as a subcontractor for USAID. Gross claimed to have been working on a project to improve Internet access for the island’s tiny Jewish community. However, along with the cell phones and other computer equipment Gross brought into the country were sophisticated, high-tech computer equipment more commonly used by the Defense Department.
In his reports to DAI and USAID after each trip, Gross warned of the dangers of detection. Following his fourth trip to the island, according to the lawsuit, he warned that Cuban customs officials “attempted to seize some of his team’s equipment when they arrived at the airport in Havana.” His fifth trip, the lawsuit said, came after DAI and USAID agreed to extend the term and expand the scope of their project in Cuba.
USAID’s democracy-building program in Cuba — funded under Congressional legislation that states regime change as the U.S. goal — is seen as a threat by the Cuban regime.
“What we’ve been doing all along is treating Cubans as if their sovereignty doesn’t exist,” said Anya Landau French, director for the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation.
Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the libertarian Lexington Institute, added: “Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the [USAID] program or one’s opinion of the Cuban government, the fact is the Cuban government sees it as a violation of its sovereignty and I think the only course [of action left] is some kind of negotiation.”
Gross was convicted of “Acts against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State” in March, 2011. Subsequent to his arrest he was subjected to “extensive interrogation, sleep deprivation, and other psychological abuse,” according to the lawsuit.
Gross’s health has been an issue for some time. Since his detention, he has lost more than 100 pounds. Cuban authorities say the mass in Gross’s shoulder is a hematoma and poses no health risk. But a Maryland radiologist hired by Gross’s family, who has seen medical scans, says the mass could be a malignant tumor.
Gross’s family are frustrated that Cuba will not permit further testing of his shoulder. But critics of the campaign say that equating this obstruction to torture may only harden Cuba’s resolve.
“The use of words like ‘torture’ are just inevitably going to force this government to dig in even further,” Sweig said.
Above all, critics question the timing of the ratcheting up of pressure on Cuba. With the election behind him, Obama has more of a free hand than ever before to act on Cuba. They argue that the campaign should be putting more pressure on the U.S. administration to negotiate with Cuba.
As a senator, Obama called for an end to the embargo on Cuba. During his first term in the White House, despite a freeze in relations over the continued detention of Gross, his administration eased restrictions on travel to the island and on the amount of money American citizens could send to Cubans.
Warmer ties with Cuba may be more politically palatable now than ever. Exit polls show that in 2012, Obama won 48% of the Cuban-American vote, more than any previous Democrat and a vast upswing from the 35% of the Cuban-American vote he won in 2008.
Moreover, as a second-term president, Obama does not have to worry about facing voters again in the key battleground state of Florida, where Cuban voters could turn on him if they perceive he is moving too fast to implement a more conciliatory policy toward the island nation.
Experts say all of these factors make it the perfect time for Gross’s supporters to push Obama to take bold steps to free Gross and improve relations with Cuba, not drive an even bigger wedge between the two countries.
Such criticism comes as no surprise to Genser, who has conducted a listening tour of Cuba experts in recent months. He is familiar with the arguments for a different approach. But he insists that they come from people who have no experience at getting people out of jail in authoritarian states.
“I have worked on 30 cases around the world in the last decade,” Genser said. “Judy… took a private and quiet strategy for much of the last three years, and what did that achieve?”
Besides, Genser said, he is pushing the administration too, albeit in a more low-key way. “We are actively working with a range of people on Capitol Hill and with NGO’s across the U.S…. to make clear to the administration that Alan’s release should be a top priority,” Genser said.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer in international studies at the University of Denver, who lived in Cuba until 2001, said that although media coverage has focused on the Cuban side of the Gross campaign, Gross’s supporters have consistently prodded at the U.S. administration and continue to do so.
“I have particular praise for Mrs. Gross’s efforts,” said Lopez-Levy. He added that she has been extremely effective in calling out the U.S. government on its moral responsibility to bring Gross home.
Genser and Judy Gross, meanwhile, emphasized that negotiations take a willingness to talk on both sides. They insist they haven’t seen any sign that Havana is serious.
Obama “has nothing standing in his way to promote more dialogue between the two countries,” said Judy Gross, “but Cuba has a great responsibility here, as well. And if they want to open up or have more bilateral relations, then they also have to sit down and talk to the United States.”
Contact Paul Berger at email@example.com or on Twitter @pdberger