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.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
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.

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? 

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.

If pounding our fists on the table doesn’t work, public shaming – as employed by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on his last trip to Cuba – doesn’t work any better.  But so far, informed, diplomatic requests haven’t done the trick either, though that approach has enabled several American delegations to visit Gross personally in prison. (Richardson had hoped to meet with Gross and with Raul Castro, but got neither.)  The latest group, the National Council of Churches, just met with both Gross and President Castro – though if they spoke to Castro about Gross, Cuban television covering the meeting didn’t say.

All that really leaves is good old-fashioned in-good-faith negotiations.  The US and Cuba ought to be set up for that these days, after the two sides agreed two years ago to restart biannual migration talks, and to explore other mutual concerns such as direct mail service and the environment. Each side has renewed access to diplomats in each other's countries, but what’s really missing is an unmistakable and unshakeable signal from the top –perhaps on both sides –that there is a willingness to actually negotiate, to give up important, game-changing ground, even if it’s not exactly what we or they wanted.

On the US side, State Department officials have been clear that they won’t exchange five Cuban agents serving lengthy US prison terms for Gross.  At best the US – allegedly – offered to let one of the Five who was released after serving some 13 years in prison complete his supervised release in Cuba, and to start “a process” to remove Cuba from the terrorism list ('a' process or 'the' process?).  Judging from Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon’s scoffing reaction, the idea fell flat. " . . . I can't believe someone would seriously think that there could be a negotiation between Rene Gonzalez ... a man who was about to complete his sentence ... and a man who is just about to start serving his . . . "  And if Cuba wanted to end the US government program for which Gross worked (Cuba considers it a regime change program, based as it is in legislation crafted to bring an end to the Castro government), the US shows no sign of giving that up either.

Back in the spring, former President Jimmy Carter met with Raul Castro and came away with the impression that Castro wanted to release Gross.  But since then, Cuban officials have given mixed signals: Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez offered some, if vague, hope for a solution while Alarcon has repeatedly said that Cuba won’t be releasing him unilaterally.

If Judy Gross is right that the Obama administration’s efforts are constrained by election year politics, her husband could have a long year ahead of him.  Mrs. Gross, understandably, doesn’t want to wait.

“I'd love for President Obama to pick up the telephone or send an email, and try to take the first step and say 'let's sit down to negotiate,” she says.

Now, it’s a ridiculous idea, but what if President Obama picked up the phone and called President Castro, and requested Mr. Gross’s release?  Might Castro fulfill such a request made directly by a sitting US president?  Aside from wanting America’s bilateral and extraterritorial trade and financial restrictions against Cuba lifted, wanting to be removed from all of the various US blacklists it feels it shouldn’t be on, wanting the Cuban Five returned, wanting the US to stop funding efforts to bring down its government, and besides simply wanting to be left alone to solve its own problems (and it has plenty of them), what Cuba wants from the United States is to be treated like a sovereign nation.  When one president phones another, that surely fits the bill.

A few intractable detractors would call it Obama’s love fest with a dictator.  But if Obama didn’t actually give anything up, nor afterward profess to having seen into Castro’s soul (ahem, when President Bush met Russia's then-President Vladimir Putin) and he won freedom for an American citizen, that’s all that anyone else would care about.

Yes, it’s a ridiculous idea.  Neither side would go along with it.  Anyone got a better idea?

--- Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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