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Is it time for Obama to simply ask Cuba's President Castro to free Alan Gross?

US officials are proposing new measures to force Cuba to release USAID worker Alan Gross from prison, but guest blogger Anya Landau French suggests trying something different.

By Anya Landau FrenchGuest blogger / December 2, 2011

Judy Gross, wife of Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba, right, talks to Nirma Medrano, left, during a rally to support Alan on Monday, Nov. 28, 2011, outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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As the second anniversary of USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross’s arrest in Cuba approaches, his family and representatives in Congress are stepping up efforts to win his release from prison.  But which, if any, of their efforts will make the difference? 

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Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland says the door is “closed” to improved relations with Cuba so long as Mr. Gross remains in jail.  It's a line to which Cuban officials are well accustomed over the last half a century of US-Cuban relations.  And a Republican contender for the seat of Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland, Richard Douglas, has a laundry list of punitive measures the Obama administration and a more “resolute” senator should initiate to win Gross’s freedom.  Mr. Douglas thinks all flights and financial transactions between the US and Cuba should be halted, all Cuban visas should be revoked, even for UN diplomats (I’m not sure we can prevent Cuban diplomats from staffing their UN mission though), and the list goes on.  Hit ‘em where it hurts, he reasons. 

We’ve been hitting the Cubans where it hurts for so many years it just doesn’t hurt them anymore.  True, family remittances to the island are a tremendous boost not only to Cubans who receive them but to the broader Cuban economy and thus the Cuban government.  But Douglas is misled if he thinks hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans will suddenly stop returning to the island and sending money to relatives just because the US government makes it more difficult.

More to the point: I can’t think of one instance where the Castro government (either Fidel or Raul) has actually capitulated to US pressure or punishment.  I think that history shows quite plainly that not only does US punishment fail to get the results we want, but it often causes an even more hardline response from Havana.  In 2004, as the Bush administration tightened nearly every screw at its disposal – limiting travel, remittances, and gift parcels to the island, and going after foreign banks willing to accept US dollar deposits from Cuba – the Cuban government responded by eliminating US dollars as legal tender on the island and slapping a 10 percent surcharge on dollar exchanges to Cuban convertible pesos.

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