Cuba: will US swap jailed agents for Gross?

In a Nov. 2 editorial, the New York Times, possibly the most politically influential US newspaper, called for the US government to free three imprisoned Cuban agents in exchange for the release of US citizen Alan Gross, who has been serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba since 2011 for his work there as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The Cubans are three of the "Cuban Five," a group of agents convicted in 2001 of espionage against the US; they insisted they were spying on Cuban-American terrorists based in southern Florida, not on the US. Two have already been released on probation after serving time, and two more are scheduled for release within the next 10 years, but the group's leader, Gerardo Hernández, was sentenced to two life terms. In 2012 Cuba indicated that it was open to exchanging Gross for the Cuban agents.

The Times editorial called an exchange the "only…plausible way to remove Mr. Gross from an already complicated equation." The paper suggested that US president Barack Obama could arrange the exchange by commuting the remaining three prisoners' sentences, which "would be justified considering the lengthy time they have served, the troubling questions about the fairness of their trial, and the potential diplomatic payoff in clearing the way toward a new bilateral relationship." (NYT, Nov. 2)

There is no clear evidence that the Obama administration is considering an exchange. However, in a discussion with reporters at the Reuters wire service's New York office on Oct. 31, an important figure in the US government, UN ambassador Samantha Power, gave an unusual commendation to Cuba. Speaking about her visit to Liberia to observe emergency medical work to contain an Ebola outbreak, she said: "Although I did not encounter them personally, I have to commend Cuba for sending 265 medical professionals early," she said. "I think they announced that going on almost two months ago, and they are sending another 200 on top of that 265. That is a big gap and a big need." When the Daily Beast asked whether she was signaling a diplomatic thaw with Cuba, Powers simply answered: "We're working on Ebola side by side." (Daily Beast, Nov. 1)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, November 9.