It's been said that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
No case illustrates this suffering more than that of Alan Gross, a Maryland resident and USAID subcontractor who was working to connect the Cuban Jewish community to the Internet and was detained by Cuban authorities one year ago. Campaigning for his release these many months, his wife, Judy Gross, fears that her husband has become a "pawn" in the half-century Cold War between the United States and Cuba.
Cuban authorities insist that Mr. Gross broke Cuban law and have on at least one occasion even suggested he was a spy for the United States. But for over a year now, in violation of his rights, Mr. Gross has been held without an opportunity to know and face the charges against him. He's lost significant weight, and his family has faced tremendous financial and emotional strain: Judy Gross has been forced to sell the family home, and their 26 year-old daughter is fighting breast cancer without her father at her side.
The U.S. State Department flatly denies that Mr. Gross broke any laws and has repeatedly demanded his return, to no avail. Some speculate that the Cuban government is angling to trade Mr. Gross for five Cuban spies, considered heroes in Cuba, currently serving U.S. prison sentences. The State Department has, rightly, rejected any such trade, but there's no evidence that Cuban authorities expect one.
It's more likely that Cuban authorities are conducting a full-scale investigation in order to make an example of Mr. Gross and force the Obama Administration to take responsibility for continuing a regime change policy in Cuba. This policy dates to the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which the late Sen. Jesse Helms was utterly convinced would finally bring down Fidel Castro's government. ("Adios, Fidel!" the senator famously exclaimed.)
Helms-Burton authorizes U.S. government funding to bring about a democratic Cuban government — free of either Fidel or Raul Castro. Under President Bush, USAID funding to U.S. and third country groups working to "hasten" a Cuban "transition" quadrupled. The Obama administration has continued many of these programs.
In response to Helms-Burton, Cuba passed its Law for the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba, which specifically criminalizes the acceptance or dissemination in Cuba of funds or materials bankrolled under the Helms-Burton Act by the U.S. government. Thus, it was not giving a laptop or satellite phone to a Cuban citizen that may have gotten Alan Gross in trouble; it is the fact that he did so at the direction and pay of a hostile foreign power.
Judy Gross has said her husband wasn't "fully aware" of the risks posed to him in taking on the USAID contract. But whether grantees fully understand the risks they take is just one of several flaws in the USAID program.
State Department officials have suggested that Mr. Gross would not have been arrested for similar activities in other countries around the world, but this ignores the fact that the U.S. does not explicitly fund regime change efforts in any of those countries. And it is likely for this reason that for years, Cuba's religious leaders, including Cuba's small Jewish community, have refused U.S. government support.
Cuba's Jewish community leaders have denied working with Mr. Gross or being informed about his work. According to Adela Dworin, who runs one of Havana's three synagogues and its adjoining community center, which boasts a computer lab with Internet access, her community already enjoys plenty of connections with Jewish communities around the world. Many groups come through Havana to make private donations and work with the community and don't run afoul of the Cuban government.
If the United States truly hopes to promote the autonomy of Cuban civil society, it must begin by respecting it, including requiring the informed consent of any Cuban with which its grantees work on the island.
The Obama administration must recognize that while Communism might be dying in Cuba, nationalism is still very much alive and well. Even while many Cubans support fundamental changes in Cuba, the vast majority of Cuban civil society continues to reject U.S. interventionist policy as a violation of Cuban sovereignty. Until the U.S. learns to take no for an answer and respect the will of those who lead Cuban civil society organizations, ordinary Cubans and well-intentioned Americans like Alan Gross will continue to pay the price.
Anya Landau French directs the New America Foundation's U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative. Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, was Secretary of the Bnai Brith in the Cuban Jewish Community from 1999-2001.