Templo Beth-Shalom in Havana, Cuba (Photo credit: Anya Landau French)
This post originally appeared at The Havana Note. An earlier version, “In Cuba, a Hostage of International Brinksmanship,” appeared in today’s Jewish Daily Forward, the online home of the weekly Forward. Arturo Lopez-Levy is a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. Mr. Lopez-Levy worked as analyst for the Cuban government between 1993 and 1994 when he resigned from his post. Between 1999 and 2001, Lopez-Levy was secretary of the Bnai Brith in the Cuban Jewish Community.
Alan Gross, a Jew, an American, a U.S. AID contractor, has sat in a Cuban prison for more than eight months. Jews, whose entire history is bound together by stories of exile and return, captivity and freedom, mourn his confinement and long for his release. Cubans who have been weary bystanders for decades in the games of brinkmanship between their government and ours know a political pawn when they see one. Concerned policy makers in Washington have now taken a hostage of their own; some have made their votes on legislation to end America’s failed and feckless ban on travel to Cuba contingent on Gross’s release. None of this is likely to shorten his hard experience living under the “hospitality” of Cuba’s government.
Why is Gross in prison? While the U.S. has intervened in Cuba to control its government or shape its system for more than a century, this story has more recent roots. The Bush administration produced two reports in May 2004 and July 2006 about how to “liberate” Cuba. The reports recommended a package of irresponsible measures to move the moderate and independent activities of Cuban civil society toward the regime change strategy envisioned by Section 109 of the Helms-Burton law. The U.S Congress approved an annual budget of tens of millions to use U.S agency for International Development contracts for this purpose – an approach that has continued under the Obama Administration.
Most sympathies among Cubans on the island for Alan Gross are based on the idea that he is a victim of a policy promoted by hardliners in the exile community – which profit from hostility between the two countries. Gross was not arrested because he is Jewish, nor is it likely that he was detained because of his alleged activities in helping the Cuban Jewish community with technology, which already had a computer lab, e-mail and access to Internet before he arrived to Havana on his several visits. As a recipient of one of these U.S. AID contracts, Alan Gross was perceived by Cuba’s government as a participant in the asymmetric political war between the U.S and Cuba; a promoter of regime change caught in enemy territory.
On my recent trip to the island, in conversations with many of my brothers and sisters in the Jewish communities, including some of the leaders, they expressed a hope to see Gross released as soon as possible but did not refrain from rejecting the so-called “Democracy Programs.” These programs are not invigorating but jeopardizing the development of Cuban civil society by forcing a regime change agenda on religious groups without their consent.
Jews in Cuba- like other religious groups – congregate in their community centers to pray and study the Torah, and to enjoy the benefits of a community pharmacy, a sports center, an ORT computer lab, learn about their beloved state of Israel, etc. What they don’t do is gather in the synagogue to conspire with the political opposition, because that would jeopardize the cooperation with the government that is necessary for activities such as the emigration to Israel program, the Birth right project, by which young Cuban Jews travel to Israel every year, or to process humanitarian aid. To protect what matters most, they keep themselves as far as possible from misconceived U.S political interventions in Cuba’s internal affairs.
Secretary Clinton’s appeal to American Jewry to rally for the release of Alan Gross must be welcomed, but some clarifications are necessary. Gross went to Cuba not working for any Jewish organization but for the USAID. The last thing Alan Gross needs is to become another tool in the arsenal of those promoting the U.S policy that brought him to his captivity. A good help to Gross’s release would be to make a serious revision of the programs under which he was sent to Cuba and create clear regulations by which the informed consent of any Cuban civil society organization involved would be requested.
The cause of Gross’ release will be advanced not by more hostility but by reaffirming American Jews’ support for ending the travel ban, so that any American may freely travel to Cuba through the front door, rather than on a risky semi-covert government-funded mission. The travel ban is the cornerstone of an interventionist regime change strategy. Thus, any attempt by Congress to condition the end of the travel ban on Alan Gross’ release would only hurt both causes.
Ending the travel ban would make easier for Jews and other Americans to go to the island and mobilize a compassionate constituency there in favor of Gross’s release without carrying the stigma of any identification with the unpopular and counterproductive regime change strategy. Ending the travel ban would also liberate U.S soft power enabling Americans to flood Cuba with information and their good spirit, and offer a stark contrast to the restrictions which Cuba’s government places on its own citizens while exposing the futility of the U.S. regime change policy in Cuba.
A freedom-based policy would best serve the national interests and the democratic values of the United States. It will create a climate most conducive to Alan Gross’s release.
– Arturo Lopez-Levy