By: Felicia Schwartz
A political-action committee backing candidates in favor of a U.S.-Cuba policy shift will launch its campaign effort Monday with the help of a notable guest: Alan Gross, the U.S. citizen who spent five years in Cuban prisons.
The committee, called New Cuba PAC, will back candidates who favor reorienting U.S.-Cuba policy, particularly with more trade and travel between the two countries. President Barack Obama took steps to lift financial and travel regulations in December as part of a normalization push, but it will take congressional action to fully lift an embargo and allow for full travel to the island.
Mr. Gross’s lawyer, Scott Gilbert, will host the PAC’s inaugural event at his Miami home. Mr. Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor, was released from detention in Cuba in December when Mr. Obama announced he would move toward normalizing ties with Havana.
Since returning to the U.S., Mr. Gross has appeared at the State of the Union address, but otherwise has remained largely out of the public spotlight. On Twitter, he’s documented his return to normality, including a recent visit to an Apple Store in New York City.
Mr. Gross also has taken to Twitter to voice support for Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy and to urge further change there.
He’s visited Capitol Hill and met with Obama administration officials to discuss his experience in captivity. In February, he submitted testimony to the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees in support of ending the travel and trade embargo.
“My five years in Cuba did not deter me from wanting to bring about change through development and engagement,” he said in written statements to both committees.
Mr. Gross hopes to return to Cuba one day, Mr. Gilbert said, “though in a very different capacity.” Mr. Gross wants to use his experience to bring about change in Cuba, his attorney said.
“This is a person who did not come back to the United States at all bitter and angry, he came back and really has transcended this experience to try to turn it and to use it for good purposes,” Mr. Gilbert said.
Mr. Gross on Monday will address a crowd of around 50 at the PAC’s kickoff, which will be a private event. Mr. Gross is expected to speak about his five years in captivity as well his thoughts on Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy. He will take questions from attendees.
“I believe and Alan believes that the path to a better relationship and benefits for people in Cuba and the United States is increased travel between our countries and increased trade, including information flow,” Mr. Gilbert said.
The PAC’s leadership includes directors James Williams, a consultant who has advised companies and organizations on Cuba, and Ricardo Herrero, also executive director of the pro-engagement Cuba Now, as well as treasurer Maria Garcia Berry, a Cuban-born Republican donor.
“The purpose is to show that folks are willing to put their money where their mouths are in terms of this important policy, and really show that there’s strength on the side of a new course on Cuba,” said Luis Miranda, a consultant who is advising the PAC and is the Obama administration’s former director for Hispanic media.
The PAC is part of a broader campaign that includes an advocacy group, Engage Cuba.
The New Cuba PAC, the first to launch since Mr. Obama’s December announcement, enters an arena where several other PACs already are engaged in pro- and anti-embargo action. Among them is the pro-embargo US-Cuba Democracy PAC, which raised around $560,000 in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Williams, the New Cuba PAC director said his group is confident it can raise more, but wouldn’t disclose fundraising targets or contributions.
In Congress, lawmakers expect a protracted legislative battle to end the travel and trade embargo. Several measures seek to dismantle the Cold War restrictions on relations between the two countries, including one introduced by Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) in January that would end all travel restrictions. It is co-sponsored by most members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but has yet to move out of committee.
In the House, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.) last week introduced an amendment to a larger budget bill that would bar flights and cruises to Cuba.
The U.S. and Cuba have yet to reopen embassies. In a key move toward doing so, Mr. Obama has removed Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Washington and Havana are expected to engage in more face-to-face talks before they raise flags, but no date has been set for those discussions.