A Prisoner Swap With Cuba
By THE EDITORIAL BOARDNOV. 2, 2014
Nearly five years ago, authorities in Cuba arrested an American
government subcontractor, Alan Gross, who was working on a secretive
program to expand Internet access on the island. At a time when a
growing number of officials in Washington and Havana are eager to start
normalizing relations, Mr. Gross’s continued imprisonment has become the
chief obstacle to a diplomatic breakthrough.
There is only one plausible way to remove Mr. Gross from an already
complicated equation. The Obama administration should swap him for three
convicted Cuban spies who have served more than 16 years in federal prison.
Officials at the White House are understandably anxious about the
political fallout of a deal with Havana, given the criticism they faced
in May after five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for an American
soldier kidnapped in Afghanistan. The American government, sensibly, is
averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United
States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional
circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that
Under the direction of Development Alternatives Inc., which had a
contract with the United States Agency for International Development,
Mr. Gross traveled to Havana five times in 2009, posing as a tourist, to
smuggle communications equipment as part of an effort to provide more
Cubans with Internet access. The Cuban government, which has long
protested Washington’s covert pro-democracy initiatives on the island,
tried and convicted Mr. Gross in 2011, sentencing him to 15 years in
prison for acts against the integrity of the state.
Early on in Mr. Gross’s detention, Cuban officials suggested they might
be willing to free him if Washington put an end to initiatives designed
to overthrow the Cuban government. After those talks sputtered, the
Cuban position hardened and it has become clear to American officials
that the only realistic deal to get Mr. Gross back would involve
releasing three Cuban spies convicted of federal crimes in Miami in 2001.
In order to swap prisoners, President Obama would need to commute the
men’s sentences. Doing so would be justified considering the lengthy
time they have served, the troubling questions about the fairness of
their trial, and the potential diplomatic payoff in clearing the way
toward a new bilateral relationship.
The spy who matters the most to the Cuban government, Gerardo Hernández,
is serving two life sentences. Mr. Hernández, the leader of the
so-called Wasp Network, which infiltrated Cuban exile groups in South
Florida in the 1990s, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder.
Prosecutors accused him of conspiring with authorities in Havana to
shoot down civilian planes operated by a Cuban exile group that dropped
leaflets over the island urging Cubans to rise up against their
government. His four co-defendants, two of whom have been released and
returned home, were convicted of nonviolent crimes. The two who remain
imprisoned are due for release relatively soon.
A three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th
Circuit overturned the convictions in August 2005, ruling that a
“perfect storm” of factors deprived the five defendants of a fair trial.
The judges found that widespread hostility toward the Cuban government
in Miami and pretrial publicity that vilified the spies made it
impossible to impanel an impartial jury. The full court later reversed
the panel’s finding, reinstating the verdict. But the judges raised
other concerns about the case that led to a reduction of three of the
One of the judges, Phyllis Kravitch, wrote a dissenting opinion arguing
that Mr. Hernández’s murder-conspiracy conviction was unfounded.
Prosecutors, she argued, failed to establish that Mr. Hernández, who
provided Havana with information about the flights, had entered into an
agreement to shoot down the planes in international, as opposed to
Cuban, airspace. Downing the planes over Cuban airspace, which the
exiles had penetrated before, would not constitute murder under American
Bringing Mr. Hernández home has become a paramount priority for Cuba’s
president, Raúl Castro. Cuban officials have hailed the men as heroes
and portrayed their trial as a travesty. Independent entities, including
a United Nations panel that examines cases of arbitrary detentions and
Amnesty International, have raised concerns about the fairness of the
proceedings. The widespread view in Cuba that the spies are victims has,
unfortunately, emboldened Cuba to use Mr. Gross as a pawn.
For years, officials in Washington have said that they would not trade
the Cuban spies for Mr. Gross, arguing that a trade would create a false
But a prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal
diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive
change in Cuba through expanded trade, travel opportunities and greater
contact between Americans and Cubans. Failing to act would maintain a
50-year cycle of mistrust and acts of sabotage by both sides.
Beyond the strategic merits of a swap, the administration has a duty to
do more to get Mr. Gross home. His arrest was the result of a reckless
strategy in which U.S.A.I.D. has deployed private contractors to perform
stealthy missions in a police state vehemently opposed to Washington’s
While in prison, Mr. Gross has lost more than 100 pounds. He is losing
vision in his right eye. His hips are failing. This June, Mr. Gross’s
elderly mother died. After he turned 65 in May, Mr. Gross told his loved
ones that this year would be his last in captivity, warning that he
intends to kill himself if he is not released soon. His relatives and
supporters regard that as a serious threat from a desperate, broken man.
If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a
healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years. This is an
entirely avoidable scenario, as Mr. Obama can easily grasp, but time is
of the essence.
Source: A Prisoner Swap With Cuba – NYTimes.com –