Scenarios - U.S. contractor jailed in Cuba still in limbo

HAVANA Sun Oct 24, 2010 8:21am EDT

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HAVANA (Reuters) - American Alan Gross has been jailed in Cuba for almost 11 months on suspicions of spying. He has not yet been charged with a crime, but there is no sign Cuba plans to release him anytime soon.

Cuban officials say he may have been a spy and that he distributed satellite communications equipment to dissidents, but the United States insists he was only setting up Internet connections for Jewish groups.

Gross, 61, was working as a contractor for Maryland-based company DAI under a controversial program by the U.S. Agency for International Development to promote democracy in Cuba.

The case is fraught with the bitter politics that have marked U.S.-Cuba relations since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.

Here are some scenarios on how this case plays out:

GROSS RELEASED, GOES HOME

The Cuban government releases Gross with no strings attached after wife Judy Gross reveals their daughter has breast cancer and needs her father home. For Cuba, it would be a way to burnish the humanitarian image it likes to project by sending doctors around the world to medically underserved countries or to stricken areas for emergency aid. But the communist-led government may not be in charitable mood toward the United States, which has rejected Cuba's repeated calls to release five Cuban agents held in U.S. prisons since 1998 after what Havana considers an unjust trial. The case barely causes a ripple in the United States, but the return of what are known as the "Five Heroes" in Cuba is a constant topic in Cuba's state-run media and government pronouncements.

Making matters worse from Cuba's perspective, the United States has never let the wives of two of the agents visit their husbands in prison, on grounds they, too, were involved in Cuba's spy services. Cuba allowed Judy Gross to come to the island to visit her husband in late July, and that may be as charitable as it gets.

There is also the possibility, probably remote, that Cuba could let Gross go because it decided there was nothing to be gained by holding him, or even that he had done nothing wrong.

GROSS RELEASED IN PRISONER SWAP

Cuba sends Gross home in exchange for the release of the Cuban Five. This has been suggested by some, speculated about by others and flatly denied as a possibility by the U.S. government. Some believe a swap would make sense, given questions about the prosecution of the five agents, who were rounded up after Cuba shot down two private planes flown by anti-Castro Cuban exiles from the United States in 1996. But it would require that U.S. President Barack Obama commute their sentences, which would be bitterly opposed by the mostly Cuban-American anti-Castro groups and lawmakers who have held sway over U.S.-Cuba policy for decades. They wield considerable clout in Washington and politically important Florida and so far, Obama has not been willing to spend much political capital on Cuba matters.

There has been speculation the Cuban government might hand over Gross in exchange for assurances Washington would halt the kinds of programs he was involved in. Cuba views them as part of the United States' long campaign to topple the communist government. But the programs have proven durable in Washington, where they are pitched as another blow for democracy in Cuba, and stopping them would likely produce political problems for Obama.

Some think Cuba would be disposed to free Gross if Obama eases travel restrictions on Americans going to Cuba. It was reported in August he was about to do so by allowing academics, corporate officials, humanitarian groups and athletic teams to travel more freely to the island 90 miles from Florida. But whatever was in the works has not happened yet. Even if it comes to pass, Cuba may view it as too small a step to warrant a response.

Last year, Obama removed restrictions on Cuban-American travel to Cuba, lifted limits on remittances sent to the island and initiated talks on migration and postal service. The Cubans said the changes were welcome, but small potatoes because the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the Caribbean island remains in place.

GROSS REMAINS IN JAIL

Gross remains in jail, possibly after finally being charged with a crime, tried and found guilty. Under Cuban law, he could be sentenced to as much as eight years in prison for distributing equipment supplied by the U.S. government. That is the worst-case scenario, but a definite possibility because it could take a big concession by the United States to free Gross, which currently looks unlikely.

U.S.-Cuba relations had warmed slightly under the Obama administration, but the United States has taken the position that no major initiatives will be undertaken with Cuba as long as Gross is held. So a lengthy stay behind bars would mean that Washington and Havana would remain where they have been for five decades -- stubbornly at odds. It has long been speculated that is what the Cuban government really wants, but it insists otherwise. Some U.S. groups prefer the status quo over any accommodation with a Castro-led Cuba.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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