New York Times
By: Randal C. Archibald
MEXICO CITY — For five years, Alan P. Gross, an American aid worker, sat in a Cuba prison growing so despondent that he openly considered suicide.
Now Mr. Gross is contemplating a return visit to Cuba, and helping a new political action committee raise money to support elected officials and candidates promoting freer trade and travel to the island.
He will appear at a fund-raiser on May 4 in Miami at the home of his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, in support of New Cuba PAC, whose leaders said they hoped to capitalize on the détente between the United States and Cuba to push for broader access to the island for Americans.
Mr. Gross will lead an “off the record discussion on modernizing U.S.-Cuba policy” at the fund-raiser, which suggests contributions of $1,000 to $5,000.
Mr. Gross declined an interview, but he has emerged on Twitter as a loquacious commentator on United States-Cuban affairs. In February, he testified in Congress in support of restoring diplomatic relations and easing trade and travel restrictions as a step toward increasing the flow of information to Cuba.
Mr. Gilbert said Mr. Gross had “transcended the imprisonment he suffered for five years” and had promised since his release to “do what he could to promote a more constructive relationship” between the countries.
Ultimately he would like to return to Cuba, Mr. Gilbert said, “in a different capacity” than the trip that led to his jailing, if it would help promote relations — and, of course, if Cuba would be as forgiving as he has been.
Mr. Gross’s case was central to the move by President Obama and President Raúl Castro to seek normalized relations, more than 50 years after both countries withdrew their ambassadors and closed embassies in the Cold War.
He was detained in December 2009 while delivering prohibited communications equipment to Cuba’s small Jewish community as part of a United States Agency for International Development program to spread Internet access in the country. Cuba charged him with crimes against the state and refused to let him go even as his health deteriorated and advocates pleaded for his release.
American and Cuban government negotiators eventually agreed on his return to the United States, an exchange of other prisoners who had been held on espionage charges and to work toward restoring full diplomatic relations and reopening embassies. At the same time Mr. Obama took his broadest steps to loosen trade and travel restrictions and soften the five-decade-long trade embargo mandated by Congress.
The new PAC aims to carry those moves further and is part of a coordinated campaign, along with a new advocacy group, Engage Cuba, made up of Republican and Democratic political operatives.
They hope to seize on what they see as momentum against the embargo and to work toward its weakening and ultimate lifting.
“We think that there’s a legitimate path to get Congress to do something constructive on Cuba and this PAC will be a key part of that effort,” said Luis Miranda, a political strategist who is serving as a consultant for the PAC.
He declined to say how much money the PAC plans to raise at the event or in the near future, but said it would have bipartisan contributors and serve as a counterweight to another PAC that for several years has campaigned to maintain the embargo.
That group, U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, has raised $4 million since its inception in 2004, though its peak performance was $802,000 collected in the two-year reporting cycle ending in 2008.
It spent $1 million, mostly on Republican officials. It raised $560,000 in the period ending in December 2014, including a last-minute surge of $55,000 after Mr. Obama’s announcement.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the PAC, shrugged off the new competitor, predicting it would join a few others in recent years that made similar promises but fizzled.
“Anti-sanctions activists have started many PACs throughout the last few years,” he said, noting that none rose above $90,000 in donations. “All of their fund-raising numbers have been dismal.”
But James A. Williams, an organizer of both the new PAC and the advocacy group Engage Cuba, said the climate had clearly changed in recent months, with Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro holding unprecedented talks, American companies anxious to get in and do business with Cuba, visits by Americans soaring and polls in both countries showing strong opposition to the embargo.
“The time is right to build a competitive organization,” said Mr. Williams, a Democratic political consultant.
Congress may provide a test of sentiment on Cuba.
After Mr. Obama announced that he would remove Cuba from a list of states that sponsored international terrorism, a crucial step in negotiations to restore diplomatic ties, congressional Republicans opposed to the warming backed down from threats to block the move with legislation. They blamed legal technicalities, but supporters of the policy said it was a sign the votes were not there.
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, has sponsored a bill to relax trade and travel restrictions. It has gained a range of bipartisan co-sponsors but has yet to move out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On Tuesday, however, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from the Miami area, filed legislation into a larger budget bill that would effectively prohibit new flights and cruises to Cuba, saying Mr. Obama’s new regulations had violated bans on tourist travel there.