To understand why The Times’s editorial board is calling for a prisoner swap with Cuba, it is instructive to revisit the history of both cases. The spies Cuba wants back were detained long before Alan Gross, an American contractor, was arrested in Havana in 2009. But soon after, officials on the island came to see him as the the best pawn to get their prisoners back.
Cuba shoots down two civilian planes flown by Cuban exiles who had been dropping leaflets over Havana urging compatriots on the island to revolt. The incident quashes hope for a rapprochement with Cuba during the Clinton administration.
President Bill Clinton signs into law the Helms-Burton Act, tightening sanctions on Cuba and tasking American government agencies, including U.S.A.I.D., with bringing about regime change in Havana.
Federal authorities in Miami arrest five Cuban spies who had been trying to infiltrate Cuban exile groups, including Brothers to the Rescue, the organization whose planes were shot down.
The Cuban Five, also known as the Wasp Network, are convicted on 26 charges related to espionage. The leader, Gerardo Hernández, is also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the downing of the planes.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issues an opinion finding that the Cuban spies did not have a fair trial, the body’s first critical ruling on a criminal case in the United States.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals overturns the convictions, finding that the men could not have received a fair trial in Miami, where there was widespread disdain for the Cuban government.
The full appeals court reinstates the convictions but paves the way for a reduction in some of the sentences.
The three-judge panel reinstates the convictions, with one notable dissent. One of the judges writes an opinion saying prosecutors failed to demonstrate that Mr. Hernández was guilty of conspiracy to commit murder because they failed to show he knew the Cuban government might shoot the planes over international airspace.
The Cuban government arrests Alan Gross, an American development expert who had been hired by a U.S.A.I.D. subcontractor to smuggle Internet equipment into Cuba, posing as a tourist.
Amnesty International issues a report outlining several concerns about the fairness of the Cuban Five trial.
The Cuban government initially accused Mr. Gross of being a spy but later convicted him of “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying in Congress, rules out a prisoner swap, saying “we are not going to trade as if it is a spy for a spy.”
Alan Gross goes on a nine-day hunger strike. Supporters fear he may do it again.