Alan Gross at State of the Union: Thumb in Cuba's eye or outstretched hand?

President Obama is using his State of the Union speech to hail the return of captive Alan Gross from Cuba. Cuba has done the same for its Cuban Five. Both could be symbols of a new path forward for the two nations.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Alan Gross speaks during a news conference at his lawyer’s office in Washington in December. Mr. Gross, who returned home last month after spending five years imprisoned in Cuba, will sit near first lady Michelle Obama during President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.

When President Obama punctuates his State of the Union address Tuesday with a nod to invited guest Alan Gross – the contractor jailed in Cuba for five years for taking telecommunications equipment to the island’s Jewish community – Congress will undoubtedly cheer long and loudly for this new symbol of America’s efforts to bring freedom to the Cuban people.

But even as Mr. Gross acknowledges the applause, similar scenes of adulation are playing out in Cuba in honor of the “Cuban Five” – the spy ring of five Cubans jailed in the United States 16 years ago for infiltrating Miami’s anti-Castro community.

Three of the five were released and returned to Cuba last month as part of the Obama administration’s deal to pave the way for normalized relations between the two countries. (The other two were released earlier when their prison terms were up.) During the past month, the Cuban government has spared few opportunities to make national heroes of the Five, through everything from concerts in their honor to grade-school history lessons.

The potency of these symbols in each country underscores the distrust that lingers after more than five decades of antagonism, as well the bumpy road that may lie ahead as negotiations begin in Havana this week. But at the same time, Gross and the Cuban Five can also symbolize a new path, some experts say.

“The Cuban Five can be very helpful in moving the US and Cuba toward better relations, and so can Alan Gross,” says Wayne Smith, a former State Department Cuba diplomat now at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

For his part, Gross supports opening to Cuba, despite five years of incarceration that became physically debilitating.

But even more “amazing,” Smith says, is how supportive the Cuban Five appear to be of better relations with the US “despite all those years of being unjustly held,” he says.

Not everyone would agree with Smith that the Cuban Five’s imprisonment was a “shame” for the US. Some Obama critics say the administration didn’t get enough in return for the three convicted spies. 

On the surface, the objective of the talks commencing this week is a diplomatic agreement for the reopening of embassies and the exchange of ambassadors for the first time since 1961.

But at home the Obama administration is emphasizing how it sees greater access to Cuba for American tourists, products, and ideas as potentially decisive in expanding political and human rights for the Cuban people. The subtext, say some in Cuba and the US, is that Obama wants to undermine Fidel Castro’s revolution and the island’s Communist system of government.

It’s a message the Cuban government won’t brush aside lightly.    

By turning the Cuban Five into “heroes of the republic,” the regime of Raúl Castro is signaling – to the US, but also to nervous Cuban Communists – that it has no intention of negotiating away the pillars of the Communist system.

Mr. Castro said as much in Cuba’s version of the state of the union address, which he delivered to the Cuban parliament Dec. 19 before several specially invited guests – including Eliàn Gonzalez, the subject of an emotional custody battle in 2000 between the Cuban government and Miami’s Cuban community, and the three members of the Cuban Five who had been released two days before.

Castro repeatedly thanked Obama for beginning a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries, but he also reassured the Communist Party faithful that the island’s political and economic systems will remain nonnegotiable.

“We won the war,” he said to applause.

Despite such chest-thumping, the Cuban Five’s endorsement of closer relations with the US should not be discounted, says the Center for International Policy’s Smith.

“Aside from Raúl Castro and Fidel, there aren’t many others who have much of an image in Cuba, but these guys do,” Smith says. “It’s going to be very useful that these five men who are seen by the Cuban people as heroes are also in favor of better relations with the US.”

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