It was reassuring last week to hear from a ranking official of the State Department that there is no plan in the works, and none foreseen, to engage in a spy swap with Cuba that would involve trading U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross for five Cuban spies convicted in Miami.
Four of them are still serving time and another is serving a three-year parole somewhere in the United States. The Obama administration official, speaking anonymously but clearly reflecting administration policy, said such a trade would be unacceptable.
No deal: That should continue to be the standard reply from Washington to Havana whenever the topic comes up.
Trading spies for hostages is a bad policy under any circumstances, especially when dealing with a cynical and corrupt regime like the one in Cuba.
Last week, Mr. Gross, 63 and in deteriorating health, completed three years in a miserable Cuban jail, denied basic services and needed medical attention because the Cuban government is trying to use him as bait to get their spies back to Havana. The Cuban government and its sympathizers say Cuba is merely seeking some sort of "humanitarian" exchange as part of this deal, but no one should be fooled by such spurious reasoning.
As the State Department official rightly pointed out: "There is no parallel between the two cases."
The unfortunate Mr. Gross, of Potomac, Md., became a pawn in Cuba's sinister spy games when he was arrested in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009, after delivering three satellite telephones for use by members of Cuba's isolated Jewish community so they could have access the Internet and contact people abroad without using the government's tightly monitored telephone monopoly. It was part of a U.S. government pro-democracy program designed to reach out to the Cuban people.
For that, Mr. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for acts against Cuba's "independence or territorial integrity."
That borders on the absurd. This kind of activity may have violated some Customs rules, but it's perfectly legal anywhere in the world except in totalitarian regimes with arbitrary judicial systems and laws that can be twisted to achieve political objectives. And it certainly doesn't rise to the level of "espionage" by any customary definition.
Meanwhile, the so-called "avispa" (Wasp) network of Cuban spies engaged in a series of actions that clearly violated U.S. laws. They spied on military facilities and infiltrated anti-Castro groups with the aim of obtaining intelligence that could be useful to the Cuban government.
Of the four who are still imprisoned, one is serving two life sentences on murder-conspiracy charges for helping Cuban warplanes shoot down two civilian airplanes in 1996, killing all four South Florida men aboard.
The Obama administration reportedly will continue its policy of trying to engage with ordinary Cubans -- it has lifted most restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances. But, as the State Department official told The Miami Herald, it is "very hard to see us making progress in bilateral relations while he is in jail."
If Cuba is serious about wanting to improve relations with the United States, as it has repeatedly claimed of late, the first step must be the release of Alan Gross. The Obama administration must make it clear that this is a pre-condition for any movement. Until he is released, relations will remain frozen.
©2012 The Miami Herald