A Secretive Path to Raising U.S. Flag in Cuba

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Just in case our readers missed it, JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and PETER BAKER (The New York Times) recently reported on the “true story” behind the rapprochement ending the half-century of hostility between the United States and Cuba. [After reading this article, I awaiting A Secretive Path, the Movie; it might be more exciting than Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Hey, I didn’t say which one is the rogue nation—don’t jump to conclusions!] Here are excerpts:

[. . .] Late last year, when President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba were only weeks away from a stunning announcement that they were ready to end a half-century of hostility, White House officials negotiating the thaw learned of a problem that could derail their clandestine work.

A surreal subplot to the negotiations — a covert plan to allow a Cuban prisoner held in the United States to artificially inseminate his wife in Havana — had succeeded. But the woman, who is famous in Cuba, was now visibly pregnant. White House officials found themselves in the bizarre position of pressing the Cuban government to keep her out of the public eye for fear that her appearance would raise suspicions and upend the talks at a critical moment.

[. . .] Driven by the ambitions of a president eager to make a fresh start with a Cold War-era adversary and eventually blessed as a moral imperative by Pope Francis, it was fueled at crucial points by more human considerations: the mounting desperation of Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor jailed in Havana, and the wish of the wife of a Cuban man imprisoned in California to bear his child before it was too late. It was shadowed at every turn by suspicion and mistrust, calcified over decades.

[. . .] Mr. Obama came to office determined to succeed where his predecessors had not, convinced that the trade and commercial embargo had failed to undermine the Castro government while worsening Washington’s standing in Latin America. Campaigning for the White House in Miami in 2008, he told a Cuban-American group that he would meet with Mr. Castro “at a time and place of my choosing.” [. . .] The Cubans made clear that they would not release Mr. Gross unless the Obama administration freed the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban intelligence officers convicted in the United States in the late 1990s of infiltrating Miami-based Cuban-American dissident groups. Celebrated in Cuba as folk heroes, Los Cinco included Gerardo Hernández, who was serving two life terms for his role in the shooting down of two planes over Cuba in 1996 flown by an exile group dropping anti-Castro leaflets.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and a former prosecutor who had studied the cases of the Cuban Five and was convinced that their trials had been botched, lobbied the president and Eric H. Holder Jr., then the attorney general, to consider trading the Cuban Five as leverage. But Mr. Leahy was told trading convicted spies for an unjustly detained contractor was unacceptable. “Our response was, ‘If that’s the case, then Alan Gross will die in Cuba,’ ” said Tim Rieser, a top Leahy aide.

[. . .] The Americans were obsessed with secrecy, inventing cover stories even for relatives to explain their out-of-town travels. [. . .] Members of Congress, unaware of the secret talks, in the meantime met at the White House with Mr. Obama to press for action to free Mr. Gross. Mr. Durbin suggested appealing to Pope Francis for help. Mr. Leahy, who had met Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, in Cuba, sent a letter asking him to raise the issue with the pope and another to Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston.

By the time Mr. Obama met with Francis at the Vatican in March 2014, Mr. Gross and the Cuban Five were on both men’s agendas, as was a broader reconciliation between the two countries. Francis followed up with letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro urging a resolution, hand-delivered by Cardinal Ortega, who was quietly whisked to the White House after an appearance at Georgetown University that had been hastily arranged as a cover story for his visit. As the cardinal met with Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, on his West Wing patio along with Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Zuniga, Mr. Obama dropped by to receive the letter.

Around the same time, there was a breakthrough: Mr. Holder agreed to support commutation of the sentences of three members of the Cuban Five. (Two had already completed their sentences.) Mr. Obama gave Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Zuniga permission to negotiate their release as part of a deal.

But the details were problematic. American officials did not want to appear to be trading three convicted spies for Mr. Gross, who they maintained had been unjustly imprisoned. They were helped when C.I.A. officials, hearing about the talks, mentioned that a Cuban man who had worked for them as a spy had been sitting in a Cuban cell for nearly 20 years, and they wanted him freed. They could trade him for the Cubans while Mr. Gross would be released on humanitarian grounds.

[. . .] As spring turned to summer, Mr. Gross’s mental state deteriorated. Friends and family feared he would die in prison. He waged an eight-day hunger strike, halting only after his mother, Evelyn, called to beg him to eat. An effort to let him see his mother, who had cancer, failed. She died in June 2014. Mr. Gross, gaunt and hobbled by hip problems, vowed not to mark another birthday in Havana. He told friends that he fantasized about killing one of his Cuban captors and being killed in the process.

Mr. Gross’s lawyer, Scott D. Gilbert [. . .] threatened to sue Mr. Obama on the eve of the 2014 midterm elections for failing to uphold the Hostage Act of 1868, which requires the president to take all action short of war to free an American captive held unjustly by a foreign government.

Mr. Kerry sent a handwritten note of encouragement to Mr. Gross, followed by the president’s letter. Mr. Gilbert delivered them in separate trips to the military hospital in Havana where he was held. He also brought cryptic updates for Mr. Gross on efforts to win his release, typed into the body of routine legal memos to avoid detection. [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/14/world/americas/a-secretive-path-to-raising-us-flag-in-cuba.html?_r=0

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