As the former deputy chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, which was charged with ensuring Alan Gross’s welfare and seeking his release from a Cuban prison, I can only hope that his recent return to the United States and the measures announced by the White House to normalize diplomatic relations and loosen trade and travel restrictions are signals of better times for both him and Cuba.
When I left the island a little more than two years ago, Mr. Gross, an aid specialist working to promote democracy, remained behind bars, a pawn of the Cuban government to exact concessions from the U.S. The country’s most prominent dissident in recent history, Oswaldo Payá, had just been killed in a suspicious car crash. Dozens of my friends in the dissident community had been swept into short-term custody during the demonstrations that accompanied Payá’s funeral procession through Havana.
A culture of reflexive authoritarianism dominated Cuba’s ruling class during my time there and still does.
Whether a new U.S. approach to Cuba succeeds where the embargo failed will depend on how the U.S. manages the diplomatic, commercial and travel openings it is trying to achieve. The right kind of U.S. engagement in Cuba can and should create additional space for individuals I came to know and respect, such as Gross, Payá and a host of others, to do their good work with less interference by a repressive government. It also can and should be used to promote the fledgling private sector that is fitfully taking shape in Cuba.
In the wake of the White House announcement, it may surprise many that we have had a robust diplomatic presence in Cuba for nearly 40 years. However, during my time there, we were kept on a very short leash by our Cuban hosts. Access to Cuban officials was strictly limited to the foreign ministry, contact with ordinary Cubans sharply discouraged and travel about the island virtually forbidden. If the restoration of normal diplomatic ties is to be meaningful, rather than symbolic, the U.S. must press for the right of its diplomats to gain full access to the broadest range of Cuban citizens throughout the country, as well as to Cuban officialdom beyond the foreign ministry.
Likewise, with expanded travel. The Obama administration has allowed thousands of Americans to travel to Cuba for what are called “people to people exchanges.” If they are expanded, every effort should be made to maximize encounters with ordinary Cubans — including those who choose to criticize their government. The highly structured, overly programmed tours under the watchful eye of the Cuban government offer few opportunities to do so. Cuba’s realities are complex to say the least and American travelers there should have every right to experience them — and every right to discuss our own complicated realities with Cubans.
Finally, if U.S. trade and investment restrictions are loosened in years to come, we must ensure that flows of money, goods and services promote Cuba’s fledgling private sector and reinforce pragmatic reformers within the Cuban government rather than feed its repressive apparatus. Raul Castro has said that socialism will continue to be Cuba’s dominant economic model, offering little leverage for either U.S. government programs or private U.S. trade and investment to grow a private sector.
Those U.S. firms that do venture there under relaxed restrictions, however, must demonstrate that they are working with genuinely independent counterparts and should be held to high standards of good corporate citizenship, just as they would in any country with a track record of poor labor and human rights standards.
In one fashion or another, the U.S. has been Cuba’s key foreign partner for well over a century. By virtue of our close proximity, the U.S. and Cuba will continue to influence each other’s behavior significantly for a long time to come. Rather than try to isolate Cuba, we need to engage its government and citizens to the fullest extent possible. As we do so, however, we need to stand firm on the principals of democracy and human rights, which are the fullest expression of our values as a nation.
Alan Gross exemplified these principles through his work in Cuba and paid for it with five years in prison. We owe it to him and the people of Cuba to do so as well.