from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Obama and Castro

August 6, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Fidel and Raul Castro have decided not to free the American hostage they now hold. Or, as the newspapers put it in legal language “Cuban court rejects appeal by U.S. contractor.”

Alan Gross was a USAID contractor sent to Cuba to help the tiny Jewish community there connect to the internet and thereby to Jewish communities around the world. For this “crime” he has been in prison since December 2009. Now Cuba’s “Supreme Court” has rejected his appeal of a fifteen year sentence. The term “court” must always be put in quotes regarding Cuba, for as in all communist states the "courts" are not independent of party control. It was Fidel and Raul Castro who decided to jail Gross, who determined his sentence, who keep him in prison, and who have just rejected his appeal.

Cuba’s “laws” permit clemency, so Gross could be released by the Castros any day they please. In that sense the ball is now squarely in their court, all of Gross’s “legal” appeals having run out. But in another sense the ball is now in President Obama’s court. How will he respond to this action by the Castros? His spokesman said “We call on the government of Cuba to release Alan Gross immediately and unconditionally, to allow him to return to his family and bring to an end the long ordeal that began well over a year ago.” That’s fine. But in fact the Obama Administration has given the Castro regime numerous benefits, for example allowing more Americans to travel to Cuba and thereby help its economy. Some of those benefits were awarded in 2009 soon after coming into office,  but others were put into place this year, even as Alan Gross sat in a Cuban prison.

Now what? Running for office in 2008, Mr. Obama told audiences in Miami that his policy toward Cuba would be based on “libertad,” and said "The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners….”

It is time to make good on that promise, for like the Cubans who sit for decades in the Castros’ jails Mr. Gross is a political prisoner. The hope that measures relaxing the American embargo would lead the Castro brothers to release Mr. Gross seems near an end. There is one further step to take through diplomatic channels now: the Castro brothers should quietly be told that unless their “clemency” is exercised the relaxation of travel restrictions will be reversed and greater pressure brought on the government of Cuba. And after giving them a short time to respond, Mr. Obama should act if they do not. It would be intolerable for the Castros to benefit from Obama policies while Alan Gross sits, month after month, in their prisons.

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