Authors: Brandon Yoder and Aimel Wong
Former President Jimmy Carter departed Havana yesterday after a three-day visit that the Carter Center billed as an opportunity “to learn about new economic policies and the upcoming [Communist] Party Congress, and to discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.” However, given that U.S. development contractor Alan Gross was recently sentenced to prison for providing assistance to the island’s Jewish community, President Carter’s meeting with Jewish leaders was a clear sign that Mr. Gross’ fate is intrinsically linked to the stated purpose of the visit. Unfortunately, he left without the jailed U.S. contractor.
Mr. Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities in December 2009 for distributing telephone and satellite communications equipment as part of a U.S. Government-funded democracy promotion program. He subsequently served 14 months in prison before he was charged with “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the [Cuban] state.” After a cursory, closed-door trial earlier this month, he received a 15-year prison sentence. The U.S. Government has continuously sought Alan Gross’ release and publicly stated that it is a prerequisite for any improvement in bilateral relations. Nevertheless, official channels of communication have failed, raising expectations for President Carter’s visit. Like President Clinton in his August 2009 visit to North Korea, Mr. Carter was faced with the unsavory task of appeasing an aging communist dictatorship to secure the freedom of a wrongfully imprisoned U.S. citizen.
With his 2002 visit to Cuba as precedent, President Carter was expected to use his trip to also deliver a strong message in support of greater respect for democracy and human rights, two issues that the Castro regime continues to ignore after more than 50 years in power. President Carter met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the highest ranking official of the Cuban Catholic Church. Cardinal Ortega deserves such high-profile attention for his role as an effective broker with the Cuban government in the release of more than 110 political prisoners since June 2010, including members of the March 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown. Just last week, the final prisoners from this latter group were finally released, having rejected the condition of exile to Spain that was imposed during initial negotiations.
Responding to expressed interest from civil society groups, President Carter met yesterday with some of the recently released prisoners, members of the Ladies in White, independent blogger Yoani Sanchez, and opposition leader Oswaldo Payá, who met with and was publicly praised by Mr. Carter during his 2002 visit. These figures are hopeful in that the president could provide support for their efforts to bring about peaceful, democratic change on the island.
President Carter likely learned a great deal about Cuba’s new economic policies, specifically how the Castro regime plans to successfully reform its moribund state-controlled economy. In September 2010, the Cuban government announced that it would transfer more than 1 million public employees into a non-existent private sector and, in turn, approved 178 new forms of self-employment. Citizens will be forced to choose from a list of options such as street dancer, fortune teller or disposable lighter repairman, opportunities that could never provide a decent living. With social unrest in the Middle East leading to the ouster of entrenched governments, it is of little surprise that the Castro regime has delayed its plans for mass dismissals, fearing similar consequences within its own borders.
The timing of President Carter’s visit couldn’t have been better. With the next Communist Party Congress set for mid-April, a strong message in support of democracy and human rights from Mr. Carter will hopefully reach the ears of the delegates that will meet to discuss Cuba’s future. They must know that the international community and, more importantly, their own people have very real expectations that the Congress will deliver the political and economic reforms that the island so gravely needs.
But the trip fell short in President Carter using his standing as an international humanitarian leader to bring Alan Gross home. Over the weekend, Mr. Gross’ wife expressed hope for a successful negotiation of her husband’s release. Those hopes have now been dashed. Yet again, the Castro regime has reaffirmed that it has little interest in dialogue with the U.S. and that its sole concern is maintaining its grip on power.
*Brandon Yoder and Aimel Wong are guest bloggers to AQ Online. Brandon is a program officer and Aimel is an assistant program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors only, and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the National Endowment for Democracy.