There may be an improved chance to get the U.S. to back off some of its anti-Cuba policies, due to a series of new developments.
*There is a new Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has in the past shown a more reasonable attitude on Cuba. There is a new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, who has greatly annoyed the right wing by his tendencies toward relative sanity in foreign affairs. There was a rumor that Kerry has ordered a review of, among other things, the presence of Cuba on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told the press that there is no such review going on now, but did not say there would not be in the near future.
*A high level Congressional delegation just got back from Cuba. One of their stated reasons for going was to ask the Cuban government to release U.S. agent Alan Gross. They were told by the Cubans that such a release is not possible unless the United States agrees to discuss it in the context of the situation of the Cuban Five. Two Democratic members of the delegation (Senator Leahy and Congressman McGovern) have spoken to the press to the effect that they think the whole of U.S. Cuba policy is stupid and needs to be overhauled completely. This is not the first time U.S. politicians have said this sort of thing, but it comes at a key moment. It is also newsworthy because those of us who work to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations have been told lately that there can be no progress until Cuba unilaterally releases Gross. Maybe that logjam is now about to break up.
*The U.S. administration has got itself into a real tangle with the Alan Gross situation. The Cubans caught him dead to rights violating their laws and doing work aimed at destabilizing their country. Gross and his wife claimed that they did not know what they were doing was illegal, but this is preposterous on the evidence. The wife sued the U.S. government and the subcontractor for whom her husband worked for not adequately warning her husband that the work he was doing could get him into trouble. The government countered by detailing information which shows not only that Gross knew or should have known he was violating Cuban law, but also that the government sent him to Cuba for the purpose of harming Cuba's government, not to help out Jewish communities as per the now thoroughly discredited cover story. The result of the clash between the U.S. government and the Grosses is that they now have managed to discredit each other's cover stories.
*This demonstrates the non-equivalence between the Gross case and the cases of the Cuban Five. It is clear that Gross was sent to harm Cuba and knew it, while nobody even claims that the Five were sent to harm the United States-the targets of their surveillance were extremist right-wing Cuban exile groups in Florida who have a history of terrorist actions. So, as Cuba has strongly hinted that it is willing to trade the Five for Gross, it shows the Cuban position to be one of generosity. It also shows that in effect Gross is being held hostage not by the Cubans, but by the United States. The U.S. has raised the fact that one of the Five, Gerardo Hernandez, was also convicted of murder for allegedly having prior knowledge of the shooting down of the "Brothers to the Rescue" airplanes in 1996, but the government refuses to release some vital flight data which might show that the airplanes were shot down over Cuban waters after violating Cuban airspace.
*A worry with the appointment of Kerry as Secretary of State is that he would be replaced as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Though a Democrat, Menendez is a hard line anti-Castro zealot who would certainly have tried to block any changes in U.S. Cuba policy. But now Menendez is in trouble about a possible corruption and cronyism scandal. The investigation is just starting, but if it turns out to be a big problem, someone else may end up chairing the Committee.
This may all come to nothing: We have been disappointed before. But it seems like the moment for an extra hard push to publicize the Cuba issue.
We should intensify our activity behind the following demands:
Take Cuba off the state sponsors of terrorism list immediately. This can be done by President Obama with the stroke of a pen.
Do a quiet humanitarian exchange, releasing the Cuban five, who have already all done 14 years in prison, in exchange for Gross, who has done three. This, also, is within the rights of the executive branch.
Allow the broadest possible interpretation of the government's power to permit U.S. citizens to visit Cuba, instead of the narrow criteria now being used.
Ending the blockade completely requires congressional action. But we should nevertheless get to work with mobilizing, mass pressure and lobbying to achieve this end also.
Let us always remember that neither this U.S. administration nor any other will change its policies without mass struggle and pressure. We should be asking ourselves "how do we turn the Cuba issue into a mass issue, the way we did with the Vietnam War and the anti-apartheid struggle?"
Photo: Lightning illuminates the sky over the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, Sept 19, 2012. Ramon Espinosa/AP