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Durbin, Kirk split on Obama’s shift on Cuba policy

Alan Gross takes a selfie with his wife, Judy Gross, on board a government plane headed back to the United States from Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014. | Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson

WASHINGTON — The Illinois senators, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk, are split over President Barack Obama’s historic shift in Cuba policy triggered by the release Wednesday of Alan Gross, a Maryland man imprisoned on the island for more than five years.

Durbin, who has worked for years to secure Gross’ freedom — and visited him in a Cuban prison hospital in 2012 — told me that establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and relaxing sanctions was “long overdue.”

OPINION

National Security Adviser Susan Rice called Durbin on Tuesday night to brief him on the impending release. Durbin met Gross on the tarmac when he landed at Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday.

Kirk said getting Gross out of prison was a “welcome relief” but the deal amounted to “appeasement” because it included a related prisoner swap. A statement from Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., echoed Kirk’s concerns.

Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was accused of being a U.S. spy after bringing equipment to hook up Cuba’s Jewish community to the Internet.

Negotiations to secure his release were conducted in Ottawa, with Canada neutral ground for three-way talks between the United States, Cuban and Vatican officials.

The deal calls for the U.S. to re-establish diplomatic relations and ease economic restrictions in place for more than 50 years. There also was “a swap and exchange of intelligence assets,” White House officials said.

The pledge to release Gross cleared the way for the spy swap. Three Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. flew home Wednesday morning while an unidentified “U.S. intelligence asset” in Cuban prisons for nearly 20 years was released.

“We’re moving away from the current foreign policy of exclusion and embargo,” Durbin told me, “to a more active relationship between the two countries.

“I think that is long overdue and this kind of opportunity for trade and travel and for the free exchange of ideas is going to do more to change Cuba as we know it than our foreign policy of the past 50 years,” he said.

Kirk said in a statement that with the spy swap “and normalizing relations without any sign of real democratic reforms, President Obama has continued the practice of treating our friends like enemies and our enemies like friends.”

“He is giving concessions to dictators and is offering all carrots and no sticks. Such appeasement puts American soldiers, diplomats and humanitarian workers in danger and sets a dangerous precedent for nations that respect democracy and defend human rights,” Kirk said.