The Gross affair has poisoned bilateral relations at a moment when Cuba is mired in a terrible economic slump and desperately needs hard currency. Which begs the question: Given its desire for U.S. concessions — such as a lifting of the travel ban — why does the Castro government insist on detaining an obscure USAID contractor whose only “crime” was to provide a very small number of Cubans with Internet equipment?
Simple: The regime fears Alan Gross because, like any repressive dictatorship, it fears an informed, organized citizenry that can utilize modern communications tools. More specifically, it fears the USAID-backed Cuban democracy programs and wants to bully Washington into canceling them. Many U.S. lawmakers — including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry — believe those programs are ineffective, but Havana apparently considers them a significant threat to Communist rule.
Indeed, Cuba’s fear of the USAID programs is sufficient reason to maintain and even expand them, while also ensuring that the relevant funds are spent efficiently. If Cuban authorities felt that the programs were merely a trivial annoyance, they wouldn’t have sentenced Alan Gross to 15 years in prison. The Communist leaders recognize that when dictatorships lose their monopoly on information, their monopoly on political power begins to weaken as well. That’s why Gross remains in jail: His attempt to promote greater Internet access in Cuba was perceived as a direct challenge to the government’s iron-fisted control of all media.
Needless to say, the 15-year sentence is an outrage, and U.S. officials should continue demanding Gross’s release. Moreover, they should tell Havana that not a single concession will be made — no more relaxing of the travel ban, no more loosening of the trade embargo, no negotiations over Cuban spies convicted in the U.S. — until he is returned home. America’s Cuba sanctions are frequently denounced as archaic, but they give the United States some real leverage over the Castro regime. Washington should use every bit of that leverage to liberate Havana’s American prisoner.