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Surprise Deal to Free American Subcontractor Heralds New Age in U.S.-Cuba Relationship

The surprise deal to free American subcontractor Alan Gross heralds a new age in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.


President Barack Obama has wanted to build a new relationship with Cuba ever since his Senate days. Now, thanks to a surprise deal to free an imprisoned American subcontractor, he’ll finally have the chance.

Alan Gross, an American who had been languishing in a Cuban prison for five years due to a fierce anti-Cuba push on Capitol Hill, Obama administration inertia, bureaucratic hurdles, and the difficulties of dealing with Raúl Castro’s regime, has been released as part of what is the first step toward a massive overhaul in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Gross, who was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was arrested in 2009 for delivering satellite phones and other communications equipment to the island’s small Jewish community, spent the last five years locked up in a Havana prison. He was set to serve 15 years but was released by Cuba on humanitarian grounds. A U.S. intelligence asset imprisoned for 20 years was also swapped for three of the so-called Cuban Five — a group arrested in 2001 after being dispatched to Florida to spy by then-Cuban President Fidel Castro.

The deal heralds what could be historic changes in Washington’s relationship with the Castro regime, an adversary of the United States ever since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The United States has maintained a strict trade embargo against Cuba for decades, and talk of lifting it has been a third rail of American politics because both parties have feared alienating the powerful Cuban exile community in the key state of Florida.

The new agreement contains an array of far-reaching changes, including paving the way for the United States to open an embassy in Havana. A number of travel restrictions have been lifted, though tourism is still prohibited. U.S. debit cards will now work in Cuba, and U.S. financial institutions will be permitted to open accounts at Cuban institutions. As far as Cuban cigars go, U.S. travelers to Cuba will now be allowed to bring back $100 worth of tobacco products. The United States and Cuba have opened a formal channel of communication, and the State Department is reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. However, the president is not asking Congress to lift the formal embargo on Cuba, though the White House is open to considering it.

“We are beginning the normalization of relations with Cuba,” a senior administration official said Wednesday morning, Dec. 17. Changes to the United States’ Cuba policy represent “the most significant changes to our Cuban policy in more than 50 years.”

In his address to the nation, President Obama thanked Pope Francis for helping broker the talks. “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case and to address Cuba’s interests in the release of three Cuban agents, who’ve been jailed in the United States for over 15 years,” Obama said.

According to a senior administration official, the Vatican and the Canadian government hosted key meetings to help broker a deal. Pope Francis was the only other foreign leader with direct involvement in the deal besides Obama and Castro.

Republicans, joined by some hawkish Democrats, reacted angrily and promised to fight the changes. Cuban-American lawmakers like Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, a likely GOP presidential candidate in 2016, have both opposed negotiating for Gross’s release. Fierce Hill opposition had helped torpedo earlier talks over Gross’s release. Last year, Menendez and Rubio lobbied colleagues to remove their names from a letter calling on the White House to negotiate for Gross’s release.

“President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” Menendez said in a statement. “I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms.”

The release will also pose political challenges for Rubio’s likely rivals for the GOP’s presidential nod in 2016. Jeb Bush, who effectively entered the race Tuesday, is a fierce Cuba hawk but will have to deal with the reality that changing demographics in his home state of Florida mean some younger voters will be open to just this kind of deal. Cruz has long favored maintaining the embargo.

For Obama, meanwhile, the deal is a win after years of wanting to improve ties with Havana. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic standard-bearer in 2016, also favors ending the long-standing trade embargo against Cuba.

“Since 1960, the United States had maintained an embargo against the island in hopes of squeezing Castro from power, but it only succeeded in giving him a foil to blame for Cuba’s economic woes,” Clinton wrote in her book Hard Choices. “It wasn’t achieving its goals, and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s deal, Democrats praised the president for securing Gross’s release and opening up a window for better relations with Cuba. “An improvement in the diplomatic and economic relationship between Cuba and the United States would benefit both countries,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

In the short term, the politics may take a back seat to the widespread joy at the release of Gross, age 65. During his time in prison, Gross lost more than 100 pounds and was forced from afar to watch his 92-year-old mother die from lung cancer while his daughter was treated for breast cancer; he also missed her wedding last year.

News of Gross’s release prompted praise from Cuban-American organizations seeking improved ties and engagement between the communist island and the United States.

“Reports that Alan Gross is being released on humanitarian grounds and will be reunited with his family in time for Hannukah is wonderful news,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of Cuba Now, in a statement.

On the flight home, Gross was joined by three lawmakers who’ve taken a keen interest in his imprisonment and Cuban affairs in general: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). When they landed in Andrews Air Force Base, Gross was greeted by Maryland Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, Michigan Senator Carl Levin and Massachussetts Congressman Jim McGovern.

At a press conference held in the afternoon, Gross thanked President Obama for his efforts in brokering a deal and offered support for a rapprochement with Cuba. “I truly hope we can get beyond these mutually belligerent policies,” Gross said. “This is a game changer which I fully support.”

This post has been updated.

Photo credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP

Tag: Cuba