New York Times Recommends U.S.-Cuba Prisoner Exchange

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.[1]

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.”

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. “If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years.
  3. 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.
  4. “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.[2]

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[1] 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).

[2] 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.

 

 

Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)

We have provided a general overview of the latest international religious freedom reports from the U.S. Department of State and from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and another post analyzed the State Department’s report on that freedom in Cuba.[1] Now we contrast and compare the Commission’s shorter and less detailed report on that subject for Cuba.[2]

Positive Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report had a few good things to say about religious freedom in Cuba.

First, it did not include Cuba in its list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC), i.e.,  those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

Second, it recognized that “[p]ositive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year.” (Emphasis added.)

The Commission endorsed the State Department reports “that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Catholic and Protestant Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces.”

The Commission also stated that the Cuban government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations. Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve,” marked by Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba.

Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report also commented on what it saw as negative aspects of religious freedom in Cuba.

Some of the criticisms echo the State Department’s report regarding the Cuban government’s system for registering religious groups, limiting certain activities to such registered groups, restricting permits for construction or repair of religious buildings, limiting access to state media and denying permission for religious processions outside religious buildings. The Commission, however, fails to mention the Department’s qualifications that these purported restrictions of religious freedom are not enforced in practice.

The Commission mentions the Cuban government’s arrest and detention of human rights/democracy activists that prevented them from attending church services, as did the Department’s report. As noted in my prior post, however, these arrests and detentions, in my opinion, are blots on Cuba’s general human rights record, not that for its religious freedom.

Another negative, according to the Commission, are the alleged Cuban government’s arrests and beatings on four occasions of evangelical pastors and the alleged targeting of the Apostolic Reformation and Western Baptist communities. We, however, do not know all the facts of these alleged events, and even if true as stated by the Commission, they do not, in my opinion, justify the Commission’s overall evaluation of Cuban religious freedom.[3]

That overall evaluation includes Cuba as one of eight countries on the Commission’s “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.[4] Its inclusion yet again, in my opinion, is due to sheer long-term blinders on U.S. perceptions of Cuba, not to an objective analysis of the facts.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy 

In accordance with its authorizing statute,[5] the Commission made the following recommendations for U.S. policy with respect to Cuban religious freedom:

  • press the Cuban government to “stop arrests and harassment of clergy and religious leaders;  cease interference with religious activities and the internal affairs of religious communities; allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally; revise government policies that restrict religious services in homes or on other personal property; and hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of non-violent religious practitioners;”
  • “use appropriated funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists from harassment and arrest by supporting the development of new technologies, while also immediately distributing proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship;”
  • “increase the number of visas issued to Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to the United States to interact with co-religionists;” and
  • “encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocks, to ensure that violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

I note first that if Cuba properly were excluded from the Watch List, there would be no basis for the Commission’s making any recommendations with respect to Cuba.

With respect to the recommendations themselves, the first one seems like an excessive concern with formalities since in practice these restrictions are not enforced. Has the U.S. updated all of its statutes and regulations to conform them to what happens in the real world?

The third recommendation should be noncontroversial, and I agree the U.S. should grant tourist visas for Cuban religious representatives to visit the U.S.

I also have no problem with the fourth recommendation, but believe that most other countries and regional blocks would not see the alleged violations of freedom of religion or belief that the Commission sees.

The second recommendation, however, raises significant problems and is objectionable.

It is difficult to know exactly what is meant by recommending the U.S. use its funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists, to develop new technologies and to distribute proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship.

To me, it sounds like a recommendation for surreptitious efforts at regime change. Remember that the U.S. in 1961 supported an armed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, that the U.S. through the CIA had plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, that the U.S. for over 50 years has had an embargo of Cuba and that the George W. Bush Administration had a Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba that produced a de facto U.S. plan for such a regime change.

Another, and more powerful, reason for being at least skeptical of this second recommendation is the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, who is now in Cuban prison after conviction in 2009 for–as the Cubans see it– being part of a “subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution through the use of communication systems out of the control of authorities.” As an employee of an USAID contractor, Mr. Gross went to Cuba on multiple occasions purportedly to establish wireless networks and Internet connections for non-dissident Cuban Jewish communities and to deliver certain communications equipment to Cubans for that purpose.

In 2012 Mr. Gross and his wife sued USAID and the contractor for allegedly failing to give him better information and training for his dangerous work, and this month (May 2013) the Grosses and the contractor reached a settlement for dismissal of the case against the corporation in exchange for an undisclosed monetary payment by the contractor.

In short, this second recommendation is not designed to improve religious freedom in Cuba.

Conclusion

The State Department’s more balanced recent report on Cuban religious freedom, in my opinion, is better grounded in reality than the Commission’s. While I believe the U.S. should encourage and promote religious freedom around the world, including Cuba, the recommendations by the Commission are unjustified and counterproductive and evidence the same bias against Cuba that we see in other aspects of U.S. policy towards Cuba.[6]


[1] The prior post also reviewed the religious makeup of the Cuban people and many other details on the subject that will not be repeated here.

[2] Prior posts examined the Commission reports for Cuba for 2010 and 2011(comment to prior post). A subsequent post will discuss the unusual structure of the Commission.

[3] The Commission’s heavy emphasis on the relatively few alleged wrongs against evangelical pastors and its ignoring the positive developments in religious freedom for “registered” religious groups like the Roman Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists demonstrate a totally inappropriate and unjustified bias in a purported nonpartisan U.S. agency of our federal government. Such a bias is not new. It also was present in the George W. Bush Administration’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which regarded unnamed evangelical Christian groups as the only “authentically independent” religious groups that could be used by the U.S. to build a “free” Cuba.  The Cuban Council of Churches, on the other hand, was seen by this U.S. commission as “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches” and, therefore, was not to be used by the U.S.

[4]  The other seven countries on the Commission’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.

[5]  That statute charges the Commission with the responsibility of “making  . . . policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress with respect to [Cuban] religious freedom.” (International Religious Freedom Act of 1988, § 202(a)(2); id. § 202(b); id. § 202(c).