Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
Miami Herald on Cuba's American hostage:
Alan Gross began his fifth year as a prisoner of Cuba's unjust "justice" system last week, a symbol of the continuing estrangement between that island nation and the United States, and, more important, the fundamentally unchanged nature of the governing regime.
Gross, for anyone who needs reminding, is a 64-year-old husband and father who was surprisingly detained in December of 2009 by Cuban authorities. He was summarily tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison for the "crime" of delivering a portable computer and a cellphone to Cuba's small and isolated Jewish community, an action not normally considered a crime except by a handful of repressive regimes around the world, including, of course, Cuba.
Since his arrest, Gross has lost more than 100 pounds. He suffers from degenerative arthritis and his health continues to deteriorate. Even worse is the emotional toll that four years of incarceration and separation have taken on him and his family. For these reasons -- and because his severe punishment is in no way commensurate with his alleged transgression -- he should be released immediately and unconditionally.
On the anniversary of his arrest, Gross' wife, Judy, made a dramatic plea for President Obama to "do whatever it takes to bring Alan home." The Obama administration, for its part, has said, without releasing details, that it is holding behind-the-scenes talks with the Cubans on the topic, even though officials have repeatedly called for his release without the need for negotiations.
Unfortunately, the Cuban government has other plans. Where the rest of the world sees a victim of an arbitrary and unfair government, Cuba's leaders see a human pawn that can be used to advance their own selfish political objectives.
The regime said last week that it was ready to hold talks over Gross' freedom, but that any such dialogue must include the situation of the four imprisoned spies who have been held in this country since 1998.
The Obama administration would be wrong to give in to this blackmail because the two cases are totally distinct. Alan Gross is a hostage; the Cubans committed espionage. The four Cuban spies (a fifth was released after completing his sentence and now lives in Cuba) were sentenced for spying not on Cuban exile organizations, but on U.S. military installations and for their part in the downing of airplanes belonging to Brothers to the Rescue in 1996.
Gross' wife has pleaded that he should not be left to die in prison. Releasing him would be the humanitarian thing to do, especially considering he committed no crime. It's up to the Cuban government to demonstrate that it's capable, just this once, of doing the right thing.
The Daily News, Bowling Green, Ky., on Obama should do more to free those who've helped us:
The United States should provide support to anyone who risks their lives to help the U.S. government.
It's a matter of principle, and, more important, respect.
Overall, the U.S. has a pretty good track record of doing all it can to get those jailed or held hostage back to their families in our country.
But two cases come to mind in which the U.S. has seemingly turned its back on those who have helped us. The most publicized case is Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who helped the United States track and kill al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden. Afridi has been rotting in a prison cell for nearly two years. A Pakistani tribunal continues to hold him without bail.
Pakistan has always played both sides of the fence when it comes to the U.S., so for them to hold Afridi without bail is really no surprise.
The Obama administration hasn't done enough to help Afridi gain his freedom. The hundreds of billions of dollars in aid we direct to Pakistan each year should provide some leverage in getting him released.
What kind of message does this send to others who might help the U.S. down the road? It's not a message we should want and, in this dangerous world, could further compromise our security.
Another disturbing case where the U.S. could do more is that of American Alan Gross. He was arrested four years ago in Cuba while working covertly in the communist-run country to set up Internet access for the island's small Jewish community, access that bypassed local restrictions. At the time, he was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. government's U.S. Agency for International Development, which works to promote democracy on the island.
Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for what he was doing.
This man was working to advance the goals of a government agency and now the U.S. leaves him to rot in a Cuban prison.
Something is clearly wrong with this picture.
As a country, we are better than this.
Boston Herald on back to USSR:
What does it say about the state of Russia today when the official state news agency is dissolved to make way for another that presumably will toady up more reliably to President Vladimir Putin?
RIA Novosti, which had acquired a certain credibility for fact-based reporting, must have been too credible and too serious for its government sponsor.
So with a flick of his pen, Putin dissolved RIA Novosti and announced the creation of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) to be headed by former news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, a Putin loyalist and unrepentant homophobe (who has made public comments demanding homosexuals be banned from donating organs for transplants).
Reporting on its own demise, RIA said in its English-language version of Putin's actions, "The move is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia's news landscape which appear to point towards a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector."
Putin's decree said the main focus of Rossiya Segodnya "is to highlight abroad the state policy and public life of the Russian Federation."
Just what the world -- and Russia -- needs more of: propaganda. Russian media is already replete with happy talk and trivia passing for "news." Its television programming -- which remains influential in all Russian-speaking elements of the old Soviet Union, including Central Asia -- gives new meaning to the old term "vast wasteland."
Is it any wonder that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets -- and tore down a statue of Lenin last weekend -- to protest the turn toward Moscow of their own president? The old Soviet handwriting is on the wall. But a generation raised with new freedoms and new ways of communicating wants no part of it.
An American president who actually stood for American values would hear their pleas and tell them they still have a friend in the United States.
Star Tribune, Minneapolis, on U.S. and E.U. must engage in Ukraine crisis:
The news narrative on Europe generally focuses on its sclerotic economies, unsustainable budget deficits and unstable currency. But Europe's malaise is still preferable to closer ties to Russia for millions of Ukrainians, including thousands encamped in Kiev in a protest that has become just the latest global flashpoint testing the Obama administration.
The United States and the European Union have a direct stake in the outcome and should be more engaged, diplomatically and economically, in order to help prevent violence and motivate Ukraine to integrate into the E.U.
That was expected to have happened by now. But Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych made a last-minute decision not to sign an E.U. Association Agreement. Instead, bowing to pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych signaled his intent to align with the Russian-oriented Eurasian Customs Union.
Putin's tough tactics included threatening a rise in natural gas prices and restricting exports. Either would hurt everyday Ukrainians, as well as some oligarchs who back Yanukovych.
The European Union and the United States have limited ability to significantly alter terms of the proposed IMF bailout. But they could offer other ways to help Ukraine get through a tough transition. Some of this is short-term, and includes direct aid. Most important, the West needs to convince Yanukovych that the best method to get Ukraine out of its perpetual economic (and thus political) dysfunction is to link its economy to the E.U.
President Obama needs to prioritize Ukraine. State Department envoy Victoria Nuland was dispatched, and Vice President Joe Biden phoned Yanukovych. But they're playing catch-up to Putin's direct involvement.
Obama is distracted domestically, and he's focused on the Mideast at a time when the administration has signaled a "pivot" to Asia. But solutions to those vexing issues will usually involve, if not depend on, Russia. Sending the wrong signal to Putin may invite more meddling in Eastern Europe and more challenges on key international issues.
Millions of Ukrainians are risking much to tie their futures to the West. The United States and E.U. should aggressively act to diplomatically defuse the immediate crisis and coax Yanukovych to choose the right long-term alignment.
Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal, on Mandela's commitment to equality rarely see:
"During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
- Nelson Mandela's "Speech from the Dock," Rivonia Trial, April 20, 1964
Just a handful of people in the last century have made the kind of sweeping impact for good in the way that Nelson Mandela did - think Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. He was a charismatic man who in a non-violent way put his life on the line - and his person in prison - for his convictions. He changed the face of South Africa and, really, the world.
While Mandela was still a young boy, his father died, and he became a ward of the acting king. Leaving his village and joining the royal family exposed Mandela to the thinking of tribal elders and put him on the path to learning about African history and dreaming of freedom and equality for black South Africans.
He became increasingly politically active and in 1944 joined the African National Congress. For many years he led non-violent actions and civil disobedience against the South African government and its racist policies.
He was arrested and put on trial several times. Perhaps the most significant was the 1964 Rivonia Trial where he and seven others faced the death penalty but were convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, he learned the language of his captors so he could communicate with them.
In February 1990, Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of incarceration.
Just three years later, he and South African President F.W. de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end that government's nearly 50-year-old system of apartheid, which enforced racial segregation and curtailed the rights of the majority black population while enhancing the rule of the white Afrikaner minority.
Mandela made history in 1994 when he was elected the first black president of the Republic of South Africa in the country's first open election. He served one term and stepped down in 1999.
The name of Nelson Mandela will live on in history - and in the hearts and minds of those who believe equality and freedom should be the destiny of all people.
The Japan Times on Karzai balks on a deal:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is playing a dangerous game. His term in office expires next April, and to preserve his leverage over political developments, he has withheld assent to a security agreement with the United States that sets the terms for the future U.S. troop presence.
Washington has threatened to pull most of its troops out if he does not move quickly. Karzai remains unbending, putting his personal interest above that of his country.
The U.S., along with other foreign countries, seeks to withdraw the bulk of its troops at the end of 2014, when the NATO mandate for operations in Afghanistan expires. It has for about a year negotiated the terms of an agreement with Karzai's government that would allow roughly 8,000 U.S. troops to stay on in Afghanistan after that scheduled departure date.
The agreement they have tentatively reached would allow about 15,000 foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan to train and assist the fledging Afghan military.
Since the outline was agreed, Karzai has piled on additional conditions. He has demanded assurances from the U.S. that it will not interfere with Afghan elections scheduled for next April.
The U.S., along with other Western governments, condemned the last ballot that kept Karzai in office, concluding that the ballot was not free. Ultimately, however, the critics backed down and Karzai stayed in office.
The Afghan president is known for 11th-hour negotiating and heavy doses of brinkmanship. This latest gambit is in keeping with that reputation. His demands make plain Karzai's desire to present himself as the protector of Afghan sovereignty. Any such deal has provisions that are difficult to swallow. (Japanese know well that bitter truth whenever there are questions about the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.)
More important, however, is his desire to protect the interests of his family and friends in a post-Karzai regime. The president has served two terms and is constitutionally barred from serving a third. He wants to maintain as much influence as possible over the next government.
Ensuring that his preferred successor wins the April ballot is one way of doing that. Equally helpful would be brokering a deal with the Taliban, which would confirm and consolidate his status as a deal maker.
The stakes are high. The U.S. has insisted that any deal must be signed soon or it will pull virtually all its troops out of Afghanistan. Those willing to call Washington's bluff need only look at Iraq to see that the Obama administration can hold firm and will not put its troops at risk without an agreement.
Karzai needs to start acting like a president. His actions appear to be driven by pique and the substitution of his own interest for that of the country. He needs to put Afghanistan's national interest first and sign the Bilateral Security Agreement.
The Khaleej Times on the alignment puzzle:
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel went out with the same mission: To convey to the allies that Washington was there to assist them but was not in a position to alter the status quo. That is what Biden categorically told Tokyo and Seoul, advising them not to read too much into the new air defense zone of China and to keep their cool. At the same time, Washington came down hard on Beijing, criticizing it for opening a Pandora's box by delimiting the skies. Biden, however, was unsuccessful in preventing Seoul from reacting to the Chinese air defense zone. Now South Korea has come up with its own expanded air zone boundaries. The response from Tokyo has also not been one of quiet acquiescence with the government not ready to submit meekly to Beijing's assertiveness. The political and security authorities in Japan are considering the possibility of amending the constitution and reviewing the nuclear program.
This has put the U.S. in a dilemma, caught between its allies and China. There is little that the Americans can do in terms of limiting Chinese influence. Similarly, in South Asia, Hagel is in a dilemma as he rubs shoulders with the Pakistani authorities. This is the first high-profile visit by a senior official from the U.S. security establishment since the last four years. The rising political storm in Pakistan over U.S. drone attacks, which has led to the suspension of Nato supplies to landlocked Afghanistan via Pakistan, will not be easy to address until and unless Pentagon officially commits itself to halting the flying sorties. This impasse comes close on the heels of an upset in Kabul where President Hamid Karzai is resisting a bilateral security arrangement with Washington until his preconditions are met.
All this boils down to an equation wherein the U.S. is not in a comfortable position either to commit or retreat while responding to the needs and aspirations of its allies. The situation is reminiscent of the Monroe Doctrine, wherein the then U.S. president James Monroe pledged that the U.S. would not interfere in European matters and Europe too should not seek to colonies South or North America. It is anybody's guess if Biden and Hagel will bring back a similar message to President Barack Obama.