Will the Release of Sgt. Bergdahl Set a Precedent for the Release of Alan Gross?

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Author: Taylor Clark

The exchange of five Taliban leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center for the freedom of U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has added a new dimension to the discussion surrounding the imprisonment of former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sub-contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009. The U.S. State Department has rejected the prospect of a similar exchange involving Alan Gross and the remaining three imprisoned members of the Cuban 5, who were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 of multiple charges including conspiracy to commit espionage. The Cuban 5 were working in Miami to monitor anti-Castro groups in an attempt to prevent them from carrying out aggressive acts against the island. Despite objections from their legal representatives, members of the Five were tried in Miami, an area directly associated with the Cuban exile community, and the group was convicted on all 26 charges filed against them. Some were even sentenced to life and double life sentences.

The Cuban government has expressed a desire to exchange Alan Gross for Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero, the three members of the Cuban 5 who remain incarcerated in the United States. Similarities between the cases of Sgt. Bergdahl and Alan Gross suggest that the Bergdahl case could set a precedent that would lead to the release of Alan Gross, but any correlation is denied by the State Department.

In a press briefing on June 2, 2014, the State Department tried to differentiate Bergdahl’s case from the case of Alan Gross. The State Department’s Spokesperson, Ms. Psaki, remained steadfast that the two cases will be handled differently and that the conditions allowing the Taliban prisoner release in exchange for Bergdahl do not apply to the case of Alan Gross.

QUESTION: But in the Alan Gross case, the Cubans have made it very clear that if these prisoners are released who have served 15 years in prison already – if these guys are – these three guys, remaining three are released, that they will – that they’ll basically release Gross, who you have similar concerns about his health and safety, as you did with Sergeant Bergdahl. And you wouldn’t actually be breaking the law, or going around the law, in releasing these guys who have served – in releasing these three guys, the Cubans. I just don’t understand —

MS. PSAKI: We look at each case differently, Matt.

QUESTION: Well, I understand. But what I don’t understand – why you rule it out completely in the case of someone who was working for the government indirectly when he was arrested, taken prisoner in Cuba. Why is that a different – I just don’t understand why, if you have the same concerns and you can deal with the situation with the snap of a finger by releasing people —

MS. PSAKI: As you know, there have been – there has been work on this case for years, as you know. So only in the last week has there been an opening that we looked into, and obviously pursued. But in any case, we’re taking every step needed behind the scenes. Oftentimes those aren’t steps that can be spoken about from the podium, so I will leave it at that.

Similarities between the two cases cannot be ignored. Urgent health concerns were stated as a main reason that the U.S. Government needed to act quickly and drastically to bring Bergdahl home. Similar to Bergdahl, Alan Gross is not in good health. He has been in prison since 2009 and has recently turned 65 years old. During his prison stay, he has lost a significant amount of weight and staged a hunger strike in April in hopes of pressuring Obama into taking action.

A main argument made by the State Department contrasting the two cases revolved around the fact that Bergdahl was taken prisoner while serving in uniform, and the need to protect the security of those in combat. A comment from the press that Gross was also working for the U.S. Government, albeit not in uniform, was ignored by Ms. Psaki.

Advocates for the release of Gross are not giving up hope that the successful procurement of Bergdahl can help Gross’ prospects for freedom. Gross’s release would be a major step forward in U.S- Cuban relations, as it has been a major point of contention between the two nations and has purportedly been the main obstacle in changing U.S. policy toward Cuba. It is time to move beyond this obstacle—or remove the obstacle.