On May 12, President Obama held a confidential conversation in the White House with Uruguay's president, Jose Mujica, the former Tupamaro guerrilla leader. The meeting was a fateful one. Did they discuss Uruguay's becoming the first Marijuana Republic? Perhaps. Did they discuss the US-Cuba diplomatic impasse of 55 years? Most certainly, because three weeks later at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Uruguay the delegates reaffirmed a decision to officially invite Cuba to a summit in Panama next May.
The Obama administration will have to accept Cuba's recognition by the OAS this spring or sit sheepishly in isolation. Fifty years ago, the OAS voted 15-4 to terminate all diplomatic relations and trade with revolutionary Cuba. Uruguay was one of the four dissenters in those days, when the revolutionary Mujica was underground, and has not changed its position over time. One doesn't need gray hairs to observe that the US policy towards Cuba is obsolete and counter-productive. Ten years ago, then state Senator Barack Obama called for diplomatic recognition. Hillary Clinton recently revealed her support for recognizing Cuba as secretary of state. Recent polls, even in Florida, show majorities in favor of normalization. Inner circles in both countries are trying to explore a rapprochement, wary of pitfalls and domestic critics.
The most important recent change in US policy is the lifting of the travel ban on Cuban-Americans visiting the island. As many as 500,000 travel back and forth every year, visiting family, sharing dialogue, spending millions in remittances. On the Cuba side, all agree that Raul Castro has opened significant space for private investment and entrepreneurs once condemned as counter-revolutionary. Businesslike bilateral talks are underway about issues of mutual interest, from currency exchanges to potential oil spills.
The biggest obstacle, from the Cuban view, is a persistent US program of covert "democracy promotion" - or, regime change - aimed at subverting the Cuban government by funding dissident networks in Cuba. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!", is how US Sen. Patrick Leahy recently described the leaked revelations about a secret social media "Cuban twitter" program called ZunZuneo, after a Cuban hummingbird. One among fifty years of subversion projects, ZunZuneo was launched in 2009 after Obama spoke of building a new relationship. Its sponsor was the US Agency for International Development [AID], even after an AID contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in Cuba for distributing communications equipment in violation of Cuban law.
Gross, now serving a 15 year sentence, is at the center of the heightened tensions now threatening normalization. Gross, 65, is widely reportedly in poor health and threatening to take his own life if he's not released by next year. Should that occur, according to one top US official, it would end any hope of Cuba winning the return of one of its agents, Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban Five who were captured in DATE while surveilling anti-Castro Cubans flying into Cuban airspace to drop propaganda materials. When two exile pilots were shot down by the Cubans after warnings conveyed directly to the US government, the Five were imprisoned on conspiracy and espionage charges. Two have served their time in federal prisons and returned to Cuba. Two others will finish their terms shortly, leaving Gerardo Hernandez facing a double life sentence.
Prisoner swaps have occurred before, for example in 1978-79 when President Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro orchestrated the release of Puerto Rican nationalists who were imprisoned for shooting up the US House of Representatives in 1954. Although the releases were described as unrelated, the Puerto Ricans were pardoned and returned to their island while separately the US received a group of its agents held in Cuban prisons.
It would be logical therefore to swap Gross for Gerardo Hernandez, even if arranged separately, but nothing seems logical about the US-Cuban deadlock. According to interviews with participants, such a staged swap finally was being considered a few weeks ago - until the fiasco of the Obama administration's trade of five Taliban officials for the return of the American POW, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl. Republicans, some Democrats and the mainstream media complained that the five-for-one deal favored the Taliban, and then the issue became inflamed by hazy reports that Bergdahl had abandoned his Afghan base and was perhaps "anti-war."
The Obama team was flat-footed in their response, failing to notify even their top Congressional allies. That failure violated a legal requirement that Congress be informed thirty days before any such deal, an obstacle that most likely would have killed the swap. But Democratic leaders were furious at not even being informed of the move.
That's why Alan Gross remains behind bars in Cuba with no deal for his release remotely possible. With the Gross matter unresolved, the entire process of normalization could go off track.
Many in Washington view the Cubans as too stubborn in the Gross case. But the Cubans have been burned by unfulfilled promises and miscommunications many times over the decades, and leaving Gerardo Hernandez behind is unacceptable to them - just as Obama argued that leaving Pfc. Bergdahl behind was out of the question.
The Cuban dilemma is that if anything should happen to Gross they will never see Gerardo back and a rapprochement could slip away. It may sound shocking to many Americans, but the death of Alan Gross in a Cuban prison would serve the interests of some in the anti-Castro Cuban lobby that is deeply threatened by the prospects of normalization. The death of Gross would serve the narrative that Castro's Cuba operates a heartless gulag, ignoring the many proven examples of Cuban exile terrorism directed from Miami against Cuban civilians, like the 73 Cubans killed in an airline bombing in 1976. Cuban exiles have been a perfect examples of the "cancer on the presidency", the metaphor once used by Nixon aide John Dean. They were the lead conspirators in the 1972 Watergate break-in, and the 1976 assassinations of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronnie Moffett, on embassy row in Washington DC. Their violent attacks on Cuba from a Miami enclave are too numerous to document.
Cuba will make its own decision for its own reasons in the Gross case, and may have to make it soon. Since the Obama administration fears any appearance of a quid pro quo in the wake of the Bergdahl fiasco, should Cuba expect nothing in exchange for the release of Gross as a humanitarian gesture? That might depend on the initiative of the many in the US Congress who recognize that it's long past time for a better relationship with Cuba. They could, for example, communicate private guarantees of White House action. They could try deleting the $20 million in federal funds for "democracy programs" in the wake of the ZunZuneo scandal. They could send a letter to Obama requesting Cuba's removal from the list of four countries designated as "terrorist" states, which hampers Cuba's access to financial capital. They could urge the president to lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba or spending US dollars there, thus undermining the current embargo. If they can't do anything in response to a release of Gross, they could watch the prospect of normalization drift away.
Another recent crisis may shadow the US-Cuban process, revealing the complications of the impasse.. A long-planned improvement of relations between Russia, Cuba and Latin America is underway just at the moment when clouds of the Cold War are darkening the horizon over the Ukraine. Russia's Vladimir Putin has just forgiven ninety percent of Cuba's $30 billion debt owed to Russia for three decades, fueling the anti-communist suspicions of the Cuban Right. The arrangement is helpful to Cuba's economy, long embargoed by the US, and adds a new counterweight against the US pressures on Cuba. If initial reports that Russia re-establishing a spy base on the island, that might chill the relationship further. Cuba, of course, has a sovereign right to accept a Russian base, especially as US regime change programs continue.
Whatever the spillover from the Bergdahl affair and the growing Russian-American conflict, however, nothing can stop the clock ticking towards 2015 when Obama has to decide whether to join the Organization of American States in restoring Cuba to equal membership. If that's what the president's confidential White House meeting with Uruguay's Mujica in May was all about, the process of normalization may yet survive the remaining obstacles to resolution after five long decades.