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CARDENAS: U.S. must pressure Cuba for release of Alan Gross

Weak response sanctions injustice

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This week marked the third anniversary of Cuba's arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross for the "crime" of delivering Internet equipment to a Jewish group in Havana. Working under a U.S. program to support the Cuban people -- as opposed to the Cuban regime -- Mr. Gross subsequently was sentenced in a Cuban kangaroo court to 15 years in prison for acts "against the state."

The ordeal has taken a terrible toll on Mr. Gross. He reportedly has lost more than 100 pounds, may have cancer and has been unable to see his elderly mother, also stricken with cancer. None of this is of any concern to the Castro government.

In fact, the regime has made it clear that Mr. Gross is merely a bargaining chip, dangling his possible release in exchange for five convicted Cuban intelligence operatives serving prison sentences for illegal activities in the United States, including spying on U.S. defense facilities.

To its credit, the Obama administration has spurned the offer, rightly rejecting any equivalence between the cases. This week, 31 U.S. senators co-sponsored a resolution similarly rejecting any ransom deal and demanding Mr. Gross' unconditional release.

Mr. Gross' case also has benefited from his wife Judy's indefatigable campaign to secure his release. In recent days, she started a flurry of activity to increase pressure on both Cuba and now the United States to resolve her husband's ordeal, including launching a $60 million lawsuit against the U.S. government and the contractor that employed him and becoming more critical of the Obama administration, calling on it now to make the concessions necessary to gain Mr. Gross' freedom.

One can only imagine the pain and desperation Mrs. Gross is feeling, knowing her husband is in the hands of an unaccountable group of thugs that remains in power by brutalizing others. Yet the sad reality is that Judy Gross has been victimized twice -- first by the Castro government's unjust incarceration of her husband and second by misguided advice from her attorneys that has prolonged her husband's incarceration.

Her first legal team advocated "quiet diplomacy," relying on the imagined good will of the Castro regime eventually to recognize the error of its ways and summarily release Mr. Gross. Two years later, not surprisingly, that approach has proved a failure, as Mrs. Gross has come to realize.

She then signed on with human rights lawyer Jared Genser, who has launched a much more aggressive campaign, including appealing the case to the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture. Unfortunately, Mr. Genser apparently believes now in treating the U.S. government as a virtual co-conspirator in Mr. Gross' continued incarceration.

As he recently said at a Washington news conference, "President Obama needs to send a high-level envoy to Cuba who has the authority to discuss the range of issues in the bilateral relationship and to make whatever decisions are necessary to bring Alan home."

A new strategy is indeed needed to obtain Mr. Gross' release, but making U.S. policy an issue should not be any part of it. Not only does it muddy the moral waters of what clearly is an unmitigated injustice committed by the Cuban regime, but it actually serves Havana's purpose by furthering the regime propaganda campaign that it is not Cuban behavior that needs to change, but U.S. policy.

Indeed, what incentive is there on Cuba's part to release Mr. Gross anytime soon when Mr. Genser is publicly attacking U.S. policy and focusing on what Washington needs to do to resolve the situation? That approach may win plaudits from editorialists at The New York Times, but the practical result will only be more jail time for Mr. Gross.

As should have been clear from the beginning of this ordeal, Mr. Gross is only coming home when his Cuban captors realize that the cost of continuing to hold him outweighs the benefits. The only way to make them feel the cost is to hit them in the pocketbook, which means rolling back such signature administration initiatives as liberalized travel to Cuba, which puts desperately needed hard currency in the regime's coffers. If Mrs. Gross' lawyers want to take on the administration, that is where they need to focus their efforts. The sooner the Cuban government sees fewer cash-carrying U.S. visitors to subsidize its control of the Cuban people, the sooner Alan Gross finally will be reunited with his suffering family.

Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.

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