The ongoing case of the Cuban 5, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder, for monitoring and trying to prevent terrorist attacks on Cuba from official US sanctuaries in Miami, will be central to any diplomatic effort to bridge the widening gap between the Obama administration and Latin America, assuming the president wins a second term.
“It is hard to believe that this case ever happened in the first place,” says the former top State Department official Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (2002-05), “unless, of course, one contemplates the real power of this group of Cuban-Americans in Florida and the hold they exercise over the US government.”
The Cuban argument is that the Five were sent to Florida to monitor the Cuban exile community after many bombings and deaths coordinated by Luis Posada Carriles, a former US CIA informant still living in Miami.
Last week marked the fourteenth year since the Five were arrested in 1998. Four remain held in high-security US prisons while one, Rene Gonzales, has completed a 13-year sentence, but is prevented by the US from returning home from Florida to Cuba. Appeals in federal court are ongoing.
Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS), originally designed as a federation of pro-US satellites in the hemisphere, is showing significant independence after democratic elections of many Latin American governments opposed to neo-liberal corporate-centered economic policies and militarized US security policies.
Most recently, the OAS sent a take-it-or-leave-it message to the Obama administration that it will no longer meet again without the official seating of a Cuban delegation, which means the US either can fall into further isolation or begin a meaningful thaw in US-Cuban relations. Assuming the OAS holds firm, the Obama administration can tell its hard-line Cuban-American critics that “Latin America made us do it,” and accept being in the same meeting room with Cuban officials.
This is no longer a moral or political issue, but of strategic consequence for the US in its backyard. The US blockade of Cuba is becoming a hemispheric blockade of US diplomacy, with China gaining economic and diplomatic ground, according to a leading Latin American specialist interviewed in Washington last week. The specialist, who is currently active in US regional diplomacy, was interviewed off the record.
A major impediment to any thaw in US-Latin American relations is the continued incarceration of the Cuban Five.
At a meeting in Washington last week, a possible scenario for freeing the Five was described by Jose Pertierra, an attorney representing Venezuela in the extradition case against Posada-Carriles. Citing a recent speech by Cuban president Raul Castro proposing a “gesto-y-gesto” approach to resolution, Pertierra recalled how the US government released four militant Puerto Rican nationalists in 1979, followed ten days later by a separate Cuban release of ten US citizens from a Cuban prison, one of whom “readily” admitted being a CIA spy. (Time, October 1, 1979)
One of those Puerto Rican prisoners released in 1979, Rafael Cancel Miranda, spoke at the same public meeting with Pertierra last week, with Cuba’s de facto ambassador, Jorge Bolanos Suarez, in the audience. The charges leveled against the Puerto Ricans were far more severe, by US standards, than those against the Cuban Five. The Puerto Ricans were convicted of firing weapons into the US House of Representatives, wounding five members of Congress.
President Jimmy Carter released the Puerto Ricans - including Lolita Lebron, Irving Flores Rodriguez and Oscar Collazo along with Cancel Miranda - after prison terms of 24 years. Declassified documents show that Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, argued that their release “would remove from the agenda of the United Nations, the Non-Aligned movement and other international for a, a propaganda issue which is used each year to criticize the US, and is increasingly used as an example of our human rights policy.” (Pertierra, Jose. “Gesture for Gesture: A Historical Roadmap for the Liberation of the Cuban Five,” September 14, 2012)
One proposal being floated by some allies of Cuba today is for the “gesture for gesture” release of the Five and, separately, Alan Gross, an imprisoned American private contractor convicted of illegally smuggling communications equipment into Cuba as part of a “democracy promotion” project under the control of the US Agency for International Development (AID). Gross made five surreptitious trips in 2009 before being arrested. He claimed to be assisting Cuba’s small Jewish community set up Internet service, enlisting American Jews in helping carry networking equipment onto the island, including mobile phone chips which make signals undetectable. The specialized chip is frequently used by the CIA and Pentagon, as reported by Desmond Butler. (AP, February 13, 2012)
The US clearly wants Gross returned, but how important is his release as a matter of state interest? His wife Judy and a stream of Congressional representatives have visited Gross in Cuba. But does the national security elite care enough about Gross to exchange him for the Cuban Five (or even the one Cuban currently in Florida)? The continued imprisonment of Gross might actually serve an American interest of damaging Cuba’s reputation and deflecting attention away from the Cuban Five case. If Gross dies someday in a Cuba jail, the US would blame Cuba? At this point, neither Gross nor his wife will even admit his involvement in a secret US-sponsored project aimed at regime change.
For their part, the Cubans will have to weigh the costs and benefits of holding Gross for 15 years if there is no flexibility on the US side.
While the current prospects for a “gesto y gesto” swap seem dim in a case that has already dragged on for 14 years, behind-the-scenes discussions are continuing. If Obama is re-elected, the dispute is likely to intensify.