Alan Gross, an American Jew and USAID contractor, has sat in a Cuban prison for nearly nine months. Jews, whose history is bound together by stories of exile and return, captivity and freedom, long for his release. Cubans, who have been weary bystanders for decades in the games of brinkmanship between their government and the United States, know a political pawn when they see one.
Gross was not arrested because he is Jewish, nor is it likely that he was imprisoned because of his efforts to help Cuba’s Jewish community with communications technology. Rather, Gross appears to be a victim of failed American policy toward Cuba and a paranoid Cuban government that is holding him without trial.
The Bush administration had issued a pair of reports urging a package of irresponsible measures to move the moderate and independent activities of Cuban civil society toward the regime-change strategy outlined by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Helms-Burton called for support of Cuban NGOs under the rubric of “democracy-building.” Congress budgeted tens of millions of dollars annually to use USAID contracts for this purpose.
Gross was the recipient of one of these USAID contracts. As such, he was perceived by Cuba’s government as a participant in an asymmetric political war between America and Cuba, a promoter of regime change caught in enemy territory.
These U.S. programs are not invigorating but rather jeopardizing Cuban civil society. Jews in Cuba congregate in their community centers to pray and study Torah; to enjoy the benefits of a community pharmacy, a sports center, and an ORT computer lab, and to learn about the State of Israel. They do not want to jeopardize their relationship with the Cuban government, which has allowed Cuban Jews to emigrate to Israel, participate in the Birthright Israel program and receive aid from Jewish communities abroad. Gross’s arrest entangled the Jewish community in a controversy that it would have preferred to avoid.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s July appeal to the American Jewish community to work for the release of Gross is welcome. Jewish groups should make clear to Cuba’s government that they are concerned about his fate. But Gross went to Cuba working not for a Jewish organization but for USAID, and the U.S. government bears ultimate responsibility for winning his freedom.
American policy-makers need to address the underlying issues that have led to this situation. Serious revisions should be made to the program under which Gross was sent to Cuba, including regulations requiring the informed consent of any Cuban civil society organization involved. More broadly, we should make sure that in our efforts to free Gross that we do not inadvertently undercut efforts to open up Cuban society.
Gross was arrested at a time when support had been building in Congress to end America’s failed and feckless ban on travel to Cuba. Now, some members of Congress are pointing to Gross’s imprisonment as a reason to halt or hold up legislation that would open Cuba to American visitors.
The current U.S. travel ban, however, is a cornerstone of the failed regime change strategy of which Gross has become the latest, most high-profile victim. Congress needs to end this ban so that any American may freely travel to Cuba through the front door rather than on a risky government-funded mission.
Ending the travel ban would liberate U.S. soft power, enabling Americans to flood Cuba with information and good spirit, and offer a stark contrast to the restrictions that Cuba’s government places on its citizens. A freedom-based policy would best further the national interests and the democratic values of the United States. Continuing this misguided ban would do nothing to help secure Alan Gross’s release.
Arturo Lopez-Levy is a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He worked as an analyst for the Cuban government from 1993 to 1994, when he resigned from his post, and served as secretary of Cuba’s B’nai B’rith Maimonides lodge between 1999 and 2001.