Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spy Swap: the Reality Show Washington and Havana Have Yet to Learn

This April 7, 2010 file photo shows posters with portraits of five Cubans jailed in the United States - Rene Gonzalez Sehwerert, Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo, Fernando Gonzalez Llort, Ramon Labanino Salazar and Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, dispayed in front of the Cuba's Consulate during a demonstration in support of Cuban revolution in Sao Pablo, Brazil. (Nelson Almeida-AFP-Getty Images)

During the Cold War, spy swaps were seemingly commonplace. Iconic, in fact: countless movies of the era use scenes of spooks and dissidents being exchanged at Checkpoint Charlie. And we still do it: just last year, the U.S. sent 10 arrested Russian agents home while Russia in turn let go four prisoners accused of espionage whose releases were sought by Washington.
So why are the U.S. and Cuba – whose relations are hopelessly mired in a cold-war time warp – so bad at this cold-war ritual? Case in point: the dysfunctional drama surrounding U.S. contract aid worker Alan Gross, who has been sitting in a Cuban jail for two years, and Cuban agent René González, who was freed from a U.S. prison this morning after serving 13 years.
Gross, 62, was arrested in 2009 and later convicted on subversion charges for bringing satellite communications equipment to Cuba's Jewish community, under a State Department pro-democracy program, without permission. Though he insisted his work was purely humanitarian and not espionage, a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years. The punishment is widely considered Cuba's retaliation for the 2001 conviction of five Cuban operatives arrested in Miami, including González, for spying and failing to register as foreign agents. (One of the men was also convicted of conspiracy in the deaths of four Cuban exiles whose small, unarmed planes were shot down in 1996 by Cuban fighter jets for allegedly violating Cuban airspace.) The spies, known as the “Cuban Five,” claimed they were simply working to thwart exile terrorism plots against communist Cuba, but their sentences ranged from 15 years in González's case to life in prison.
González, 55, is the first to be paroled, but a judge recently denied his request to return immediately to Cuba and his family, insisting he has to serve three years' probation in the U.S. For weeks now, speculation has been rampant that the Obama Administration would find a way to send González home as a means of prodding Cuban President Raúl Castro to release Gross – who has lost 100 lbs (45 kg) in prison and whose 27-year-old daughter has breast cancer – as a humanitarian gesture, something Castro has said he's willing to do.
But whether because of election-year pressure from politically powerful Cuban-Americans like U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami – the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week called González “an enemy of America” who must be kept under watch during his probation – or because of Castro's apparent refusal to accept the waiver of González's probation as sufficient reason to free Gross – former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson was rebuffed when he reportedly conveyed that offer from Obama during a visit to Cuba last month – no such swap appears to be in the works. And neither the U.S. nor Cuba will come out of this looking good to the world. “It's an international black eye on both our houses,” says Anya Landau French, director of the New America Foundation's U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative in Washington.
(See "The Alan Gross Affair: the U.S. and Cuba Begin Their Dysfunctional Dance")
The U.S.'s p.r. shiner will stem from the impression that it's done comparatively little to secure Gross' freedom after moving so quickly last year to win the release of Russian prisoners who weren't even Americans. Nor can the U.S. really argue that keeping González in country for three additional years serves that many national security interests. Many also feel the State Department bears a large share of the blame for Gross' situation, since according to his family and lawyers he wasn't aware that the USAID program he was serving, via a non-governmental contractor, was financed by U.S. legislation whose aim is regime change in Cuba. (Others question whether Gross really could have been that naive.) At the same time, while the U.S. says Gross did not receive a fair trial in Havana, Cuba complains that the Cuban Five themselves were tried in the prejudiced exile atmosphere of Miami.
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Cuban spy free from Florida jail
MARIANNA, Fla. - A Cuban agent jailed for spying on Cuban exiles in Florida was freed from a U.S. prison on Friday but must remain in the United States for three years on probation, a condition Cuba says puts his life in danger. Rene Gonzalez, 55, the first to be freed of the so-called "Cuban Five" espionage agents arrested in 1998, left the Marianna prison in Florida's northwest Panhandle at around 4 a.m. EDT and was reunited with his two daughters, father and brother, attorney Philip Horowitz told Reuters. "He was in great spirits, very happy to see his family, to be out, he had a smile on his face," Horowitz said. Gonzalez had served 13 years of a 15-year sentence. Horowitz said he would renew an appeal against the requirement that Gonzalez, who has dual U.S.-Cuban citizenship, spend three years of supervised release in the United States.

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