Cut Loose the Shackles of the Past

“Today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future, for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.”

President Barack Obama has set a new course. Recognizing that more than half a century of isolation has not brought freedom to Cuba, the president has declared sweeping policy changes. These will include normalization of relations, as spelled out in an agreement reached with Cuban President Raul Castro.

Interestingly, regarding past clandestine efforts to push Cuba toward collapse, the president chose a phrase often (and mistakenly) attributed to Albert Einstein as the definition of insanity: “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.”

There is no record of Einstein ever having said such a thing. And, indeed, perseverance can be a sign of mental health. In this case, however, as the president pointed out, experience with China and other governments who do not subscribe to the American love for freedom has produced positive results. And this new approach seems more pragmatic than dogmatic.

One American is already freed from his shackles because of the changes. Alan Gross was a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He was sent by USAID to spread freedom by helping Cubans to get satellite and wireless communications equipment. Tragically for Gross, his family, and all of us who care, he ran afoul of Cuban law banning such equipment and prohibiting internet access.

As a website dedicated to freeing Gross put it, “On December 3, 2009, the night before Alan was scheduled to return to the U.S. from his fifth trip to Cuba and moments after he concluded a phone call with his wife, he was arrested by Cuban officials. The Cuban government held him for 14 months without charge. After a summary trial in March of 2011, a Cuban court determined that Alan had attempted to undermine the Cuban government by distributing communications systems not under government control — the very work USAID sent him to Cuba to do. The court convicted Alan of ‘acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,’ and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.”

In the five years since his imprisonment, Gross was not permitted to see his ailing mother before she died; he missed his daughter’s wedding; and he was unable to be there when his daughter underwent major surgery. His own health has deteriorated. He lost 100 pounds, can hardly walk, lost five teeth and lost most of the vision in his right eye.

In July, after a visit from his wife and daughter, he said goodbye and told them he would not see them again while imprisoned.

Fearing for Gross’ life, his wife made a direct appeal to President Obama to do everything possible to gain his freedom … before it’s too late.

The deal that freed Gross also included freeing three Cubans who were part of the “Cuban Five” — part of the “Wasp Network” sent by Fidel Castro to spy on the U.S. The five were convicted in 2001 on conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S. and were serving terms in Florida.

Not surprisingly, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) criticized the Obama administration’s plan for diplomatic ties with Cuba. He hailed the release of American prisoner Alan Gross, but Rubio warned that Gross was a hostage, not a political prisoner, and that the deal for his release sets a bad precedent. “It puts a price on every American abroad.”

Senator Rubio’s reaction is understandable. His parents emigrated from Cuba in 1956, at a time when young Fidel Castro was still the darling of American liberals — the selfless leader of his band of barbudos — bearded rebels who came to rid his people of the hated dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro stood for freedom and claimed he was not interested in power. The New York Times and many American leaders saw him as a knight in shining armor.

It didn’t take long for the armor to rust. Castro soon rivaled Batista in his power lust and tyranny. Many of his former friends and supporters escaped to the U.S. for their lives.

As said, though, the decision to normalize relations with Cuba was pragmatic, not dogmatic. And the president is to be commended for trying to steer a new course when the old one proved wrong. He is also to be commended for — at long last — freeing Alan Gross.

We can only hope and pray that Mr. Obama will now follow his own lead … and cut loose the shackles of the past to achieve justice for Jonathan Pollard and Sholom Rubashkin.