Alan Gross imprisonment a result of misguided US rhetoric?

Cuba said last month it would release 2,900 prisoners ahead of the pope's visit this spring, but US prisoner Alan Gross is not to be one of them. 

In this photo taken December 2011 and provided to the Associated Press by Adela Dworin, American government contractor Alan Gross (c.) poses for a photo with Cuban Jewish leaders Adela Dworin (r.) and David Prinstein at the Finlay military hospital in Havana, Cuba, during a visit with Gross to celebrate the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. Gross, who was working on an USAID subcontract when Cuban authorities apprehended him two years ago, was not included in a massive prisoner release announced last month.

The phrase “exercise in futility” can easily be applied to the United States' half-century old embargo of Cuba. But lately there is an even more disconcerting trend among US policymakers, which can best be described as conducting our fruitless policy toward Cuba with “eyes wide shut.”

How else to describe the recent comments from senior USAID and State Department officials in response to a blistering - and vital - critique of US taxpayer-funded democracy programming in Cuba?

The critique was published in The Miami Herald by Fulton Armstrong, a former senior staff member to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry. USAID's Mark Feierstein and State's Michael Posner responded to the criticism, which they have the right and responsibility to do, but their response is another disappointing indication that this administration remains inexplicably committed to a policy of willful ignorance when it comes to Cuba.

Exactly why is an insider battle over US programs in Cuba being waged outside, on the pages of The Miami Herald? At the heart of this debate is the continuing imprisonment of an American citizen, Alan Gross, who was working on an USAID subcontract when Cuban authorities apprehended him two years ago, and after a long investigation, convicted him of crimes against the Cuban state.

Armstrong and other critics of the USAID program point out that it amounts to a semi-covert regime change program that should never be carried out by an aid agency and that it ill-equipped Gross for the risk he was taking. The program is authorized under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act which seeks to help hasten a “transition” in Cuba.

It's not that Cuba is a dangerous place for Americans – on the contrary, it's one of the safest places we could visit. But when an American visits Cuba five times in one year on a tourist visa, but actually on a US government subcontract and with high-tech communications equipment in tow, he isn't just violating Cuban immigration law, he's violating its national security laws as well. That's because when the US Passed the Helms-Burton Act the Cuban government, which viewed the Act as a threat to its national security, responded with a law of its own which criminalized dissemination or receipt of materials or funds, or taking direction from, the US Government under Helms-Burton.

It's not clear whether Mr. Gross, who has said he was “duped” (by whom he hasn't said), was adequately warned about this law. Judy Gross, Alan Gross's wife, has said that her husband at one point wanted to inform Cuban authorities of his work but that his employer, Development Alternatives Inc., told him not to, and that even if he were picked up, he'd be questioned and then released. If true, they were wrong.

Ordinarily, the State Department warns all American travelers abroad, “when you are in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws.” (Whether we like them or not.) But, in the defense of USAID's Cuba program, and with an American citizen's freedom on the line, Feierstein and Posner are forced to break from this most obvious truism. They continue to insist that Mr. Gross broke no law in Cuba, intimating that we can ignore Cuban law, and to demand Gross's release as if the Cubans are actually listening. But he did, we can't, and they're not.

It's one thing for US officials, surrounded by unsatisfiable critics on all sides, to quietly grumble about Armstrong's tough and public critique of a program that doesn't work but can't be dumped. But it's intellectually dishonest – and diplomatically counterproductive to achieving Gross's release – to come strutting out with a defense that so willfully ignores reality.

Bottomline, don't travel to Cuba on a tourist visa unless you're actually a tourist, and definitely don't accept a US government contract to work in Cuba.

--- 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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