By just before 8 o’clock last night, my feet really began to hurt.
I was standing at attention, waiting for the President and his wife, wedged between four bearded Haredi men, a woman with very bare shoulders, and several people way taller than me who had their iPhone cameras at the ready and looked as if they had prior lives as paparazzi. Your typical Jewish crowd.
By that time in the evening, I had stood on line in the surprisingly chilly Washington evening to enter the White House, then stood as we ate, schmoozed, and ogled at the lush Christmas decorations, the historical paintings, the massive kosher buffet and the sheer amazingness of being here, in the central address of American power.
But I was wearing my good black heels and my feet hurt. It was cool enough to be at the Hanukkah reception. Did I really need to pay attention to the actual ceremonial part, too?
In a word, yes.
There was a special excitement about being in the White House on the day that Alan Gross was freed from a Cuban jail as part of a dramatic rethink of relations with our neighbor to the south. The President was eager to connect that story to the larger holiday theme, and a positive current buzzed through the air that was so welcome after a year of awful news.
President Barack Obama trumpeted the release of Alan Gross at the annual White House Hanukkah party.
The president said Gross had his strong family and the entire Jewish community to thank for his release after five hears in captivity in Cuba.
“He never gave up and we never gave up,” Obama told guests at the White House Wednesday evening.
I’ve been following the Alan Gross saga for the past two years now and have often felt alone. The story of the seemingly hapless technology expert who found himself jailed in Cuba for trying to help the miniscule Jewish community connect to the internet has never gotten much pickup among American Jews and has elicited only a handful of stories in the mainstream press.
I thought I wouldn’t hear more about Gross’s case until the day a deal was struck for his freedom — he was put on trial last March and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. And then an AP story came out this weekend providing more detail on what got Gross in hot water in the first place, based largely on his own reports of his five trips to Cuba in 2009.
The big revelation of the piece is the extent to which Gross knew he was engaged in, as he put it in one report, “very risky business.” He was bringing in a large number of sophisticated electronic devices like laptops, smartphones, hard drives and networking equipment in order to help set up uncensored wifi centers for Cuba’s Jews. And he was doing so in covert ways, including dividing up the equipment among his traveling companions, described in the article as unnamed “American Jewish humanitarian groups.”
In short, he was not the “trusting fool” he described himself to be in his trial, someone who was “duped” and “used.” The article strongly suggests that he was fully aware of the danger involved in what he was doing and took great risks to carry out his task, which still seems to have been the setting up of internet access for Cuban Jews — that part of the story has not changed.
How does this alter our understanding of the Gross case?
You’ve probably heard by now of Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, the American students imprisoned and abused in Iran for two years, virtually incommunicado, on flimsy espionage charges until they were finally “bailed out” (read: ransomed) by Oman and released last month.
You may also know about Alan Gross, the ailing American computer specialist arrested in Cuba in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years on sedition charges for helping to set up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community. He too has had very limited access to the outside world — only four consular visits in two years — despite Cuba’s treaty obligations under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which requires that imprisoned foreign nationals be allowed access to and assistance from their country’s diplomats.
Unfortunately, as NYU political scientist Louis Klarevas pointed out in a post this week on ForeignPolicy.com, it’s been hard for the United States to insist on its right to defend its citizens abroad, because we are one of the major violators of that very treaty. Our law enforcement authorities routinely ignore their obligation to inform prisoners of their consular rights, despite repeated protests — not just from Iran and Cuba but from Britain, Canada, the European Union, Germany, Mexico, and Paraguay. In fact, we lead the world in executing foreign nationals without allowing them access to their consular representatives. According Klarevas, a counter-terrorism expert,
out of at least 160 capital cases in which a foreign national was sentenced to death in the United States, only seven — less than 5 percent — were in full compliance with the VCCR’s requirements.
What’s more, Klarevas reports, citing the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center,