Alan Gross, the 64-year-old American who has been imprisoned by Cuban authorities since 2009, is an unremarkable man on the surface. He could be a friend or colleague, or an uncle you’ve been meaning to call.

Yet what distinguishes Gross from most of the rest of us, myself included, is his courage. As a sub-contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Gross traveled to Cuba to help private citizens gain access to the Internet, and thus to news and information not managed or manufactured by the Cuban government. Gross likely knew that his work was dangerous, but he may have underestimated the risk he was taking. In a heartbreaking letter to President Obama, Gross recounted the many ways his wife and daughters have suffered in his absence. He beseeched the president to intervene in his case.

And so Gross, a husband and father from Maryland who seems to want nothing more than to be reunited with his family, has reignited the decades-long debate over how the United States should deal with Cuba, a rogue state that continues to adhere to Marxist-Leninist one-party rule long after the collapse of its Soviet patron.

While some lawmakers, including Cuban-American Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have urged the Obama administration not to negotiate — but instead to demand Gross’ unconditional release — Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has led the chorus of those calling for the president to play ball with Cuba’s rulers, or rather to “not shrink from the obligation to negotiate for his freedom.”

What the Cuban government wants most is a relaxation of the economic sanctions the U.S. government first imposed on the island nation in 1963, when it became clear that Fidel Castro intended to align his new regime with the Soviet Union and to have Cuba serve as a staging ground for armed insurgencies throughout Latin America.

In the decades since then, the sanctions regime has evolved in various ways. There are now a number of licensed exemptions that allow Americans to provide humanitarian assistance in Cuba, or that allow academic researchers to travel there. Cuban households receive $2.6 billion in remittances from Cuban immigrants and people of Cuban origin living abroad, most of which comes from the United States. And as Emily Parker observed earlier this week, for example, the Obama administration made it somewhat easier for U.S. telecom providers to do business with Cuba in 2009, in an effort to encourage the free flow of information in and out of the country.

So should the U.S. government ease economic sanctions even further? The plight of Alan Gross represents an opportunity to rethink the sanctions regime. One widely held view is that U.S. sanctions actually serve to entrench the current Cuban government, as they allow Cuba’s rulers to tightly control the flow of resources in and out of the island, and also to blame the United States for the poverty and deprivation that plagues Cuban society. The problem with this line of thinking, as Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of Cuba Democracy Advocates and a proponent of sanctions, notes, is that foreign trade and investment in Cuba is the exclusive domain of the state.

Whereas the Chinese government offers wide latitude to private enterprises, both domestic and foreign-owned, to operate on Chinese soil, the Cuban government severely limits the scope for private economic activity. This is one reason why China “feels” like a freer society than Cuba, despite the fact that the Chinese government maintains a large and expensive repressive apparatus. To grow the Chinese economy, China’s rulers have had little choice but to relax their grip on investment and entrepreneurship.

In recent years, the Cuban government has allowed for the emergence of a small-scale “self-employment” sector. Yet this sector shouldn’t be mistaken for private enterprise, as self-employed individuals are barred from building their own independent businesses.  If sanctions are lifted without conditions, it seems more likely than not that the Cuban government would insist that all U.S. trade and investment be channeled through state-owned entities. Given Cuba’s parlous fiscal state, this would be an enormous boon.

Rather than lift sanctions unilaterally, the U.S. ought to consider modifying the approach it has taken since passage of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. Under Helms-Burton, the U.S. is prepared to lift sanctions if and when Cuba releases political prisoners and allows for the inspection of its prison facilities, legalizes political activity and opposition parties and abolishes its secret police. Essentially, the law insists on immediate regime change, and it is easy to see why Cuba’s rulers find its conditions unacceptable.

Congress ought to consider a new approach: the U.S. will relax sanctions if Cuba allows its citizens greater scope to build their own private businesses, which will have the right to engage in foreign trade, receive foreign investment and employ workers. The Cuban government will, of course, be allowed to tax and regulate these private businesses, but it will have to offer its citizens at least some economic liberty, so that an influx of U.S. trade and investment won’t simply bolster the Cuban state and Cuba’s repressive apparatus.

Yes, Cuba’s propagandists will characterize this deal as yet another example of Yankee meddling. It is also true, however, that this approach would offer Cuba’s rulers a meaningful alternative to Regime Change Now while also allaying the concerns of Americans who fear that easing sanctions might strengthen the current regime. And by loosening the economic stranglehold of Cuba’s state-owned monopolies, we can give Cubans the breathing room they need to start building a free society.

Featured Publications