Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Alan Gross at State of the Union: Thumb in Cuba's Eye or Outstretched Hand?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Alan Gross at State of the Union: Thumb in Cuba's Eye or Outstretched Hand?

Article excerpt

When President Obama punctuates his State of the Union address Tuesday with a nod to invited guest Alan Gross - the contractor jailed in Cuba for five years for taking telecommunications equipment to the island's Jewish community - Congress will undoubtedly cheer long and loudly for this new symbol of America's efforts to bring freedom to the Cuban people.

But even as Mr. Gross acknowledges the applause, similar scenes of adulation are playing out in Cuba in honor of the "Cuban Five" - the spy ring of five Cubans jailed in the United States 16 years ago for infiltrating Miami's anti-Castro community.

Three of the five were released and returned to Cuba last month as part of the Obama administration's deal to pave the way for normalized relations between the two countries. (The other two were released earlier when their prison terms were up.) During the past month, the Cuban government has spared few opportunities to make national heroes of the Five, through everything from concerts in their honor to grade-school history lessons.

The potency of these symbols in each country underscores the distrust that lingers after more than five decades of antagonism, as well the bumpy road that may lie ahead as negotiations begin in Havana this week. But at the same time, Gross and the Cuban Five can also symbolize a new path, some experts say.

"The Cuban Five can be very helpful in moving the US and Cuba toward better relations, and so can Alan Gross," says Wayne Smith, a former State Department Cuba diplomat now at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

For his part, Gross supports opening to Cuba, despite five years of incarceration that became physically debilitating.

But even more "amazing," Smith says, is how supportive the Cuban Five appear to be of better relations with the US "despite all those years of being unjustly held," he says.

Not everyone would agree with Smith that the Cuban Five's imprisonment was a "shame" for the US. Some Obama critics say the administration didn't get enough in return for the three convicted spies.

On the surface, the objective of the talks commencing this week is a diplomatic agreement for the reopening of embassies and the exchange of ambassadors for the first time since 1961. …

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