The wife of a Jewish American contractor jailed in Cuba since 2009 said Thursday that she had no problem with US president Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro in South Africa Tuesday.
“I have no problems with the handshake at all, but it’s been overplayed. I’m not reading anything into it and I don’t think people should read anything into it as well,” Judy Gross, whose husband Alan Gross is being held in Cuba, told the Times of Israel. Rather, she stressed, it was vital that Obama get personally involved in the struggle to secure the release of her husband, a US government subcontractor.
“There couldn’t be a better place than Mandela’s funeral for a meaningful handshake,” Gross said.
Tuesday’s handshake at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg between Obama and Castro touched off speculation of thawing relations between the estranged countries.
But having spent the past four years fighting to end her husband’s controversial 2009 imprisonment for working against the Cuban government, Gross said the handshake was only about politeness, not policy.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Obama adviser Ben Rhodes said the handshake was not planned in advance and didn’t involve any substantive discussion. “The president didn’t see this as a venue to do business,” he told reporters traveling back to Washington aboard Air Force One.
However, the image of the leader of the free world shaking hands with a Communist dictator is something many critics, especially Republicans, are unwilling to shrug off.
Arizona Senator John McCain compared the handshake to British leader Neville Chamberlain clasping hands with Adolf Hitler in 1938.
“Why should you shake hands with somebody who’s keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what’s the point?” he asked, in an apparent reference to Gross.
Gross was arrested four years ago while working covertly in the Communist-run country to set up Internet access for the island’s small Jewish community, access that bypassed local restrictions. At the time, he was working as a subcontractor for the US government’s US Agency for International Development, which works to promote democracy on the island.
Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the US to undermine its government, and Gross was ultimately tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His case has become a sticking point in improving ties between the two countries, which have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1961.
“Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told Secretary of State John Kerry at a hearing Tuesday.
“Could you please tell the Cuban people living under that repressive regime that, a handshake notwithstanding, the US policy toward the cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened,” she continued.
The Havana-born congresswoman is a fierce opponent of the Castro government and has publicly called for Gross’s release.
In a Fox News interview on Tuesday, Ros-Lehtinen said Castro does not deserve Obama’s courtesy. “He should have ignored him, he should have shunned him.”
Ros-Lehtinen casted doubts on the spontaneity of the handshake, saying Obama’s entourage would have known who was sitting near the president.
“I don’t think it was by chance or by accident that the president of the United States was seated next to Raul Castro… He could have easily turned the other way and ignored him… He is tiptoeing around all the thugs and making deals wherever he can,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
Does handshake signal a shift in US policy toward Cuba?
As president, Obama has lifted limits on how often Cuban-Americans can visit family back on the island, and how much they can send home in remittances. He also reinstated “people-to-people” cultural exchange tours to Cuba. The result is more than a half-million US visitors to the island each year.
Cultural, sports and academic exchanges have become commonplace. Just Monday, a huge ship docked in Havana carrying hundreds of Semester at Sea students under a US government license.
But Obama has also argued that Washington’s 51-year economic embargo on Cuba should remain in force, and his administration has imposed tens of millions of dollars in fines on international companies for violating the sanctions.
Cuba’s imprisonment of Gross on December 3, 2009 put relations back in a deep freeze. Gross remains jailed, and is, according to wife Judy, in ill health and depressed. But this year Washington decided it would no longer let the case stand in the way on areas of common interest.
The US and Cuba have held multiple rounds of talks on restoring direct mail service and immigration issues, with more scheduled for January. Diplomats on both sides report cordial relations and call each other at home. The two nations’ coast guards reportedly work well together on things like drug interdiction.
This convivial working relationship has not made it to the negotiations over Alan Gross’s release, said wife Judy.
“He is beginning to lose hope. He’s not seeing any US government action for his release,” said Gross. As a USAID subcontractor, she said Gross feels he was acting for the US government. Gross was contracted to connect Cuba’s Jewish community to international communication systems.
“But when things went wrong, they basically dropped the whole situation. They sent him to Cuba, and now he feels they have no intention of helping him anymore,” said Gross.
Gross was called to the State Department on Monday for a periodic update and was again assured of the government’s efforts in freeing Alan.
“I got what I call ’empty rhetoric,'” she said.
“We’re asking for the US government to sit down and have negotiations. The most important message is that President Obama needs to get personally involved in the situation. He’s the one person who can get Alan out.”
The only way to change the situation, said Gross, is to directly pressure Obama to act. To that end, 66 senators, spearheaded by Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), signed a letter last month asking Obama to intervene. Alan Gross also penned a letter, which was read at a protest in Washington, DC, on December 3 marking his four years in captivity.
According to Judy Gross, the Cubans have requested the US appoint a special envoy for her husband’s negotiations. She said at Monday’s meeting “it was clear the secretary of state had no idea the Cubans want to sit down.”
‘If the word “precondition” means you won’t sit down, then that’s actually Alan’s death sentence’
The negotiations’ stalemate stems from the US government’s requirement of no preconditions in the negotiations, said Gross.
“You can’t say there’s no precondition. If the word ‘precondition’ means you won’t sit down, then that’s actually Alan’s death sentence.”
She added that she often thinks about the thousands of Palestinian prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011.
Like the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas, “Clearly the Cubans are using Alan as a hostage; Castro came out publicly that he’s not a spy,” said Gross.
“I think of [Shalit] all the time, I wish my government would have that much interest in Alan to get him out.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report