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December 1, 2014 3:07 pm

Hopes rise for release of US contractor Alan Gross in Cuba jail
Marc Frank in Havana

Alan Gross completes his fifth year in a Cuban jail on Wednesday for
alleged spying, and the 65-year old US contractor insists it will be his
last behind bars. The signals sent in the US and Havana in recent months
suggest he may be right.
The desire of Barack Obama, US president, to improve relations with
Cuba, an forthcoming regional summit and Cuba’s own economic woes are
converging to put Gross’s release on the radar in both countries.
Mr Obama last year described US policy towards Cuba as anachronistic and
called for more “flexible and creative” approaches. More recently, John
Kerry, secretary of state, and Samantha Power, Washington’s ambassador
to the UN, have praised Cuba’s participation in the fight against Ebola.
“Both the European Union and the Obama administration are convinced
ongoing reform of the Cuban system has begun. The EU has moved to
re-engage Cuba; many believe the US will follow,” said one western diplomat.
But Mr Obama’s efforts to improve relations have so far been stymied by
the case of Gross, who was jailed for 15 years for installing internet
networks under a US programme Havana considered subversive. Washington
has demanded his release. Opposition to rapprochement from
Cuban-American lawmakers such as Robert Menendez, outgoing head of the
Senate’s foreign relations committee, has also obstructed progress.
Cuba has meanwhile linked the fate of Gross, who is reportedly in poor
mental and physical health, to that of five Cuban intelligence agents
imprisoned in the US in the 1990s on charges of infiltrating exile
organisations and US bases. Two were recently released.
However, Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive in Washington,
who co-authored Back Channel to Cuba, a book that details secret
negotiations between the two countries since 1959, said there had never
been a better moment for diplomacy.
“There are ample precedents for the two countries to engage in a
prisoner exchange that sets the stage for movement on larger issues
toward normalisation,” he said. “If I were President Obama I would be
working diligently to arrive at a humanitarian agreement, given the
precarious state of Alan Gross’s mental health and the dire consequences
for future policy if something happened to him.”
Paul Hare, a former UK ambassador to Cuba who teaches at Boston
University, agreed the moment was propitious. Venezuela, Cuba’s closest
ally, sends billions of dollars of subsidised oil to Havana every year
but is struggling with a fast-deteriorating economy. “With Venezuela in
ever more desperate straits, [Cuban president Raúl Castro] may soften
his position,” Mr Hare said.
“On the US side?.?.?.?polls show the Cuban issue no longer counts for as
much and a majority of Americans favour free travel, the opening of
embassies and other measures.”
Removing the US embargo against Cuba requires congressional approval but
Mr Obama could use executive powers to improve relations during his last
two years in office, he said.
Next year’s Americas Summit, scheduled to be held in Panama in April, is
also raising expectations of progress. Mr Obama and Mr Castro, who is
scheduled to retire in 2018, are both expected to attend for the first time.
“The stars may finally be aligned,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert
at Brookings in Washington. “Obama is focused on his legacy and ruling
by executive decree; Menendez is no longer chair of the Senate foreign
relations committee and, importantly, Raúl Castro, facing a weak
economy, appears genuinely interested in better relations.”
The summit could prove a “decision-forcing moment” as regional pressure
to put hostilities aside mounted on both sides, Mr Feinberg said.
This convergence of factors lies behind the mounting speculation about a
behind the scenes deal over Gross and the Cuban agents. Such a move
could herald a broader effort by both Mr Castro and Mr Obama to leave
office with the end of one of the most intractable relics of the cold
war finally in sight.

Source: Hopes rise for release of US contractor Alan Gross in Cuba jail
– FT.com –

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