Tim Rieser ’76 helped shape Cuba policy changes

by Erin Lee | 2/26/15 8:06pm

Many call native Vermonter, avid cross-country skier, fluent Spanish-speaker and blue-jean aficionado Tim Rieser ’76 one of the most influential behind-the-scenes forces in Washington today. Recently, Rieser helped secure the release of Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba since 2009 on accusations of espionage.

Rieser, in his position as a foreign policy aid to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, focuses on human rights and social justice issues, longtime friend and senior-level advisor in the U.S. Department of State Susan Braden ’77 said. She noted that since his time as a Vermont public defender, Rieser has advocated for the vulnerable and spotlighted neglected causes.

Rieser said that his interest in law and social justice issues, as well as other countries, originated in part from his father Leonard Rieser ’44, who dean of the faculty and provost at the College and the first director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Despite his success, Rieser himself prefers to avoid the limelight and work in the background, an attitude rarely seen on Capitol Hill, colleague and founder of the Veterans for America Foundation — originally known as the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation — Bobby Muller said.

Former White House Counsel Greg Craig said that Rieser has been the “most effective Senate staffer in the last 25 years.”

Rieser also works as the Democratic Clerk for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. Recently, Rieser helped in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba in addition to helping orchestrate Gross’s release.

Gross was freed last December largely due to Rieser’s negotiation efforts over the past two years, Gross’s lawyer Scott Gilbert said. Rieser helped ensure all parties remained focused on the human dimension of the situation, Gilbert said, adding that Rieser approached the matter as more than a job and cared a great deal about Gross and his family.

Rieser said that he acted as a liaison between the Cuban government and the U.S. Department of State and traveled with Leahy to Cuba multiple times. He said he talked to Gross over the phone often, encouraging him not to lose hope.

“The biggest concern that we had was his mental health, because he made clear that 2014 was going to be his last year in Cuba,” Rieser said. “He was not going to live another year in Cuba.”

Gross wrote in an email that Rieser was a reassuring source of information and lifeline to the outside world during his imprisonment, calling him “one of the very few honest players in a very confusing environment.”

Craig said that Rieser, known for being honest, straightforward and nonpartisan, has an enormous amount of credibility both within the administration and with foreign governments. He said that foreign officials respect Rieser because he does not overpromise and is transparent about the concerns of the Senate.

Rieser said he considers the release of Gross a step forward in a larger effort to improve American-Cuban relations, a process that began about 20 years ago. Both he and Leahy first became interested in Cuba because of its proximity to the United States, he said.

Rieser said that both he and Leahy believed that the United States’ embargo against Cuba, first imposed in 1960, was “a failed relic of the Cold War.”

“It was becoming an increasing irritant in our relations with other countries and an embarrassment and really beneath the United States,” he said. “Why can Americans travel anywhere in the world, but not Cuba? Why do we have an embargo against a tiny country of 11 million people when nobody else does?”

Rieser said that the administration’s initial approach to getting Gross home was to simply make demands, a strategy that he believed would be unsuccessful.

“If the past 53 years have taught us anything, it is that the Cuban government does not respond to being bullied or to ultimatums,” he said. “I told them that if that was the approach they insisted on, then Alan Gross would die in Cuba and that would be the end of any chance of changing the policy for the rest of this administration and probably for some years after.”

Rieser said that for the first year and a half, he had no idea of the probability of success.

“I found, at times, dealing with our own government was as frustrating as dealing with the Cuban government,” he said.

In secret negotiations in Canada between the two governments, the United States agreed to release the “Cuban Five,” Cuban prisoners held in the United States on convictions of espionage, in exchange for Gross.

Currently, the countries are discussing terms of opening embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C., an issue they hope to resolve within roughly the next month, Rieser said. He added that both countries are interested in resuming normal air travel and mail service between the United States and Cuba.

Braden said that the media rightly gave credit to Rieser for the tremendous amount of work he did with Cuba, an unusual occurrence as the job is often “thankless.”

Muller said he learned the basic “weapons of operating” in Washington D.C. from Rieser. He noted that Rieser’s success is in part due to his knowledge on a wide range of issues.

“He would know my issue better than me, but he also knew a dozen other issues intimately well,” Muller said.

Rieser is always on the move and can often be seen jogging through the halls of Congress to meetings, Muller said. He added that he could always count on Rieser to answer his office phone as late as 10 p.m., a testament to his “industriousness and diligence.”

Rieser loves hiking, skiing, biking and running, and his “connection to nature keeps him who he is” even when he is not in Vermont, Braden said.

Rieser came to Dartmouth after attending Stanford University for one year and taking another year to work and travel, which made his Dartmouth experience different from that of many other students, he said. He studied history, particularly Latin American studies with Marysa Navarro, who was a history professor from 1968 to 2010, and was interested in the various revolutionary efforts of the time and democratic, social and land reforms, Braden said.

Braden said that Rieser demonstrates that people in government can make a difference and can actually effect more change from within.

“[Rieser] shows that you can make change,” Braden said.