U.S. citizen Alan Gross is being held in a Cuban prison after having been tried and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law while three Cuban citizens are being held in U.S. federal prisons after having been tried and convicted by U.S. federal courts for violating U.S. law. There has been much public and governmental desire in both countries to have their respective citizens released from prisons and returned to their home countries.
On November 3, 2014, a New York Times editorial recommended that the two countries negotiate a prisoner exchange. The editorial first set forth the following lengthy summary of the two sets of prisoners:
- “Under the direction of Development Alternatives Inc.,which had a contract with the United States Agency for International Development, Mr. Gross traveled to Havana five times in 2009, posing as a tourist, to smuggle communications equipment as part of an effort to provide more Cubans with Internet access. The Cuban government, which has long protested Washington’s covert pro-democracy initiatives on the island, tried and convicted Mr. Gross in 2011, sentencing him to 15 years in prison for acts against the integrity of the state.”
- “While in prison, Gross has lost more than 100 pounds. He is losing vision in his right eye. His hips are failing. This June, Mr. Gross’s elderly mother died. After he turned 65 in May, Mr. Gross told his loved ones that this year would be his last in captivity, warning that he intends to kill himself if he is not released soon. His relatives and supporters regard that as a serious threat from a desperate, broken man.”
- Five Cuban men (the so-called “Cuban five”) had “infiltrated Cuban exile groups in Florida” that had “dropped leaflets over the island urging Cubans to rise up against their government.” Four of them “were convicted of non-violent crimes,” and two of these four “have been released and returned home” while the other two of these four who “remain imprisoned are due for release relatively soon.”
- The remaining U.S. prisoner and the one “who matters the most to the Cuban government, Gerardo Hernández, is serving two life sentences.” He was the leader of the Five and “was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder” in connection with the Cuban military’s shooting down of a civilian plane operated by one of the Cuban exile groups over the unmarked border between Cuban and international waters.
- “A three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned the convictions [of all five Cubans] in August 2005, ruling that a ‘perfect storm’ of factors deprived the five defendants of a fair trial. The judges found that widespread hostility toward the Cuban government in Miami and pretrial publicity that vilified the [Cuban]spies made it impossible to impanel an impartial jury.”
- “The full [11th Circuit] court later reversed the panel’s finding, reinstating the verdict. But the judges raised other concerns about the case that led to a reduction of three of the sentences.” One of the Circuit’s judges, “Phyllis Kravitch, wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that Mr. Hernández’s murder-conspiracy conviction was unfounded. Prosecutors, she argued, failed to establish that Mr. Hernández, who provided Havana with information about the flights, had entered into an agreement to shoot down the planes in international, as opposed to Cuban, airspace. Downing the planes over Cuban airspace, which the exiles had penetrated before, would not constitute murder under American law.”
- “Cuban officials have hailed the [five] men as heroes and portrayed their trial as a travesty. Independent entities, including a United Nations panel that examines cases of arbitrary detentions and Amnesty International, have raised concerns about the fairness of the proceedings.”
The editorial then noted that early “in Mr. Gross’s detention, Cuban officials suggested they might be willing to free him if Washington put an end to initiatives designed to overthrow the Cuban government. After those talks sputtered, the Cuban position hardened and it has become clear to American officials that the only realistic deal to get Mr. Gross back would involve releasing [the remaining] three Cuban spies convicted of federal crimes in Miami in 2001.”
Thus, according to the editorial, the key issue now is whether the U.S. Government will agree to such a prisoner exchange, and the editorial argues that the U.S. should do so for the following reasons:
- Gross’ “arrest was the result of a reckless strategy in which U.S.A.I.D. has deployed private contractors to perform stealthy missions in a police state vehemently opposed to Washington’s pro-democracy crusade.”
- “If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years.
- A “prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive change in Cuba through expanded trade, travel opportunities and greater contact between Americans and Cubans. Failing to act would maintain a 50-year cycle of mistrust and acts of sabotage by both sides.
- “In order to swap prisoners, President Obama would need to commute the [three Cuban] men’s sentences. Doing so would be justified considering the lengthy time they have served, the troubling questions about the fairness of their trial, and the potential diplomatic payoff in clearing the way toward a new bilateral relationship.”
“Officials at the White House are understandably anxious about the political fallout of a deal with Havana, given the criticism they faced in May [of 2014] after five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for [one] American soldier kidnapped in Afghanistan. The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that [criterion].”
This editorial is the latest in what the Times itself states is an editorial series on “Cuba: A New Start.” The first editorial was titled “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba.” The next in the series actually was “Editorial Observer: Still Pondering U.S.-Cuba Relations, Fidel Castro Responds,” by Ernesto Londoño of the newspaper’s Editorial Board; it noted Fidel Castro’s favorable reaction to the first Times editorial. The second editorial, “Cuba’s Impressive Role on Ebola” (Oct. 19, 2014). The third editorial, “The Shifting Politics of Cuba Policy.” The fourth, also published on November 3rd with Ernesto Londoño’s byline, “Editorial, Alan Gross and the Cuban Five: A Timeline.”
 This blog previously has discussed the Alan Gross case and the Cuban Five case and urged a prisoner exchange: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011); Commutation and Release of Convicted Spies (Sept. 24, 2011); Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations (Sept. 27, 2011); U.S. and Cuba Discuss Exchange of Prisoners (Oct. 14, 2011); Letter to President Obama Regarding Cuba (Aug. 17, 2012).
 This blog previously has commented on three of these editorials: New York Times Urges Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 13, 2014); New York Times Commends Cuba for Fighting Ebola in West Africa and Again Urges U.S.-Cuba Normalization (Oct. 19, 2014); New York Times Again Urges Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 26, 2014). Another post cited Londoño’s article about the U. N. General Assembly ‘s recent vote on the U.S. embargo: U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns U.S. Embargo of Cuba (Oct. 30, 2014). Londoño joined the Times’ Editorial Board in September 2014 after a distinguished career at the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News. Mr. Londoño , who was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, moved to the U.S. in 1999 to study journalism and Latin American studies at the University of Miami.