Obama and the Embargo on the Island

An end to the United States’ trade embargo on Cuba, demanded for the 22nd consecutive year by the General Assembly of the United Nations and passed by the overwhelming majority of 188 votes in favor, two against (the United States and Israel) and three abstentions (the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia), would end an outdated embargo established by Kennedy in 1962 and reinstate free trade and open waters. But the embargo will continue in force because the voting is nonbinding. It could mean direct or indirect losses of $110 billion according to the United Nations Development Program and more than $1 trillion according to the Cuban government.

Prensa Latina estimated that between May 2012 and April 2013, the Cuban public health system incurred unnecessary expenses of $39 million because it had to acquire vital medicines and equipment from faraway markets. The embargo has lasted for 52 years and runs the risk of becoming interminable with all the side effects that might bring, and President Obama has identified its resolution as being of utmost importance.

US-Cuba Détente?

The decision to set free all 75 opponents and independent journalists arrested in 2003 in the “Black Spring,” announced at the beginning of July 2010, marked the start of a relaxing in the previously hostile relationship between the United States and Cuba. In return, in 2010 Obama reinstated the Clinton policies toward Cuba, which had been repealed by George W. Bush in 2003, reducing restrictions on travel and money sent between the two countries. But he has held strong on the necessity for Alan Gross to be released for new concessions to be made, including the release of “The Five.”

The story of “The Five” starts with Rene Gonzalez, who spent 13 years in prison in the United States for supposedly infiltrating an organization of Cuban exiles in Florida. He was accused of being part of the “Wasp Network,” which involved more than 40 Cuban intelligence agents and informants in southern Florida, detained in 1998 and convicted of espionage in 2001 in Miami along with Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando González.

Alan Gross, on the other hand, was a contract worker for USAID in a pro-democracy program and was detained in Cuba in 2009 for “the illegal distribution of Internet equipment.”

Four years after the arrest of Alan Gross, Jewish-American and a presumed spy, who was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison for committing “actions against the territorial integrity of the state,” we are seeing the beginning of a new, intricate diplomatic undertaking that could result in the trade of Gross for “The Five” as a gesture of good will. This would be a necessary step toward an end to the outdated U.S. embargo on Cuba and a new era in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

The diplomatic maneuvers began when Gross sent a personal letter to President Obama on the fourth anniversary of his arrest in Cuba, in which he expressed his disappointment, saying, “I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me. … I ask that you also take action to secure my release, for my sake and for the sake of my family,” followed by another letter along the same lines sent to the White House by Gross’ family.

These letters were followed a month later by another letter written by a bipartisan group of 66 senators, led by Democrat Patrick Leahy, urging Obama to “act expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain his release.” Gross was convicted in Cuba in 2009 for “giving sophisticated communication equipment to Jewish Cubans.”

Ever since 2009, Obama’s administration has publicly and privately asked for Gross’ release, and the situation has turned into the primary obstacle to the process of relaxing restrictions that the president initiated at the beginning of his presidency.

The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed, “In the case of Mr. Gross, we’ve had any number of initiatives and outreaches over the last several years … and we are currently engaged in some discussions regarding that, which I’m not at liberty to go into in any kind of detail.”

In addition to these official measures, there is word of secret conversations between Arturo López-Levy, a Jewish-Cuban professor at the University of Denver, and the Cuban authorities to negotiate a trade of “The Five” for Gross, which would eliminate a significant obstacle in the long road to establish normality between the U.S. and Cuba. Arturo López-Levy created and taught a summer postgraduate class at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia and has direct access to Raul Castro because his cousin, the son of a general of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces, is married to one of Castro’s daughters.

An End to the Embargo or a New Missile Crisis?

The measures taken by the Obama administration have followed the lead of the Clinton administration by relaxing communication restrictions, allowing more remittance money to be sent to the island and initiating a round of conversations about immigration. But they have left the embargo intact and haven’t substantially changed policies in Washington. At the least, the measures reflect a consensus of a good percentage of U.S. citizens in favor of a change in policy toward the island, encouraged by the Cuban regime lessening state control of the economy and permitting some free trade and small enterprise.

Nevertheless, the automatic renewal of the trade embargo for another year by the United States and implementation of regressive measures driven by the anti-Castro lobbyists in Miami (U.S. banks not permitting the Office of Interest of Cuba to use their services and the obstruction of open access to news from Prensa Latina) threaten current international financial and political systems. This could mean losses of $50 billion for Cuba and economic asphyxiation for Castro’s regime, even as the Obama administration starts moving slowly toward establishing the foundation for a new doctrine of “between equals” between the U.S. and Cuba.

If the discreet conversations between López-Levy and Raul Castro fail, a new disregard for Obama could emerge in Cuba, creating a perfect opportunity for Putin to arrange a new Cuban-Russian military treaty (recalling the secret pact signed in 1960 in Moscow between Raul Castro and Khrushchev). A new radar base could be installed in the abandoned Lourdes military base, perfect for listening comfortably to secret whispers in Washington, and bases could be equipped with Iskander missiles and military planes with nuclear weapons (for example, those fearsome TU-160s known in the West as “Blackjacks”). We could see the revival of the Kennedy-Khrushchev missile crisis and the subsequent signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

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