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What Was Alan Gross Doing in Havana?

4 years ago
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Last week President Obama released his proposed $52.8 billion 2011 budget for the U.S. Department of State. Included with the billions for programs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq is a relatively minuscule $20 million allocation to "promote self-determined democracy in Cuba." For one unlucky consultant hired to do just that, however, the mandate is particularly thorny. During the first week of December, Alan Phillip Gross, an American from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Potomac, Md., was arrested at Havana's Jose Marti airport as he was boarding a plane to leave Cuba. He has not been formally accused, but is suspected by the Cubans of spying for the U.S. government.
Although he entered the island on a tourist visa, Gross was not in Cuba for the exceptional bird watching. The 60-year-old family man, synagogue member, and former Obama supporter is a technology expert and federal vendor whose specialty is bringing satellite signals to remote locations. Though uninvited by his hosts, he was on Castro's island as an "independent business and economic development consultant" to Development Alternatives, Inc., a State Department contractor that hired him under a $8.6 million contract from the Agency for International Development. Since his arrest, reporters have asked at State press briefings about Gross' detention and his precise assignment in Cuba. Few details have been released other than he was there to assist "civil society organizations" to better communicate through technology.
For more than 50 years Cuba has been quarantined by the United States because of our tiny neighbor's contrary position on democracy. The Cuban Republic is governed by communism, predicated on the socialistic ideology that a government provides cradle-to-grave care for its citizens in exchange for individual freedom.
Although once menacing (particularly when Cuba teamed with our Cold War enemies in a global posture that sought to "bury" us), the small but irritating neighbor 90 miles off the Florida coast has been kept largely in check by a strictly enforced trade embargo and travel restrictions. In the contest between the egalitarian Goliath and doctrinaire David, however, foreign policy slingshot attacks have dominated the narrative.
Since 1996, a small effort to stick our thumb in the island's eye developed with the formation of a "Cuba democracy program" within USAID to deliver "humanitarian aid" and "information" to "human rights and political activists" and families of dissidents. For years the democracy program's budget, about $2 million to start with, was funneled into grants to Cuban American groups in Miami that ostensibly used the money to somehow promote freedoms for Cubans still on the island.
Unfortunately, program funds were misused. A 2006 audit and investigation by the GAO highlighted taxpayer monies used to purchase Godiva chocolates, Nintendo GameBoys and cashmere sweaters. An alleged embezzlement scheme by another grantee was discovered in 2008, leading a member of the House to challenge USAID's annual program allocation, which had by then grown to $45 million per year. The agency agreed to more closely monitor its contractors, and soon after Alan Gross was hired via DAI to travel to Cuba.
The New York Times reported the lone consultant had already visited Cuba several times under his subcontract when he was arrested. Early accounts of his efforts say he was there to help a small number of Jewish citizens in Cuba obtain "unfiltered access" to the Internet, The Miami Herald reported, but prominent members of the Cuban Jewish community claim they don't know Gross.
Though his bosses deny he is an intelligence agent, there has been a lot of mystery surrounding Gross' mission. For over a week after he was detained, his arrest was kept secret from the press and Congress. After reporters learned of his detention, his supervisor at DAI released this statement: "The detained individual was an employee of a program subcontractor, which was implementing a competitively issued subcontract to assist Cuban civil society organizations.'' It was not disclosed what companies competed for the job.
A State spokesman dodged questions about the American's arrest because, he said, U.S. consular staff in Cuba had not been allowed to speak with him. "Since we haven't met with him, we don't have a privacy waiver, so it's difficult for us to get into any more specifics on that case." Although envoys were finally allowed to meet with the contractor, specifics remain scarce.
Cuba does not view the development expert's assistance to their "civil society organizations" benignly. The Washington Post reported that, in a speech to the Cuban general assembly on Dec. 21, President Raul Castro spoke about "the detention in recent days of a U.S. citizen, euphemistically labeled as a government contractor . . . devoting himself to the illegal distribution of sophisticated satellite communications equipment." To which the State Department replied, "The individual in question was there and was part of the process whereby we continue to encourage and help facilitate Cuban citizens being able to do what citizens in most other parts of the world get to do -- connect with the internet, be able to communicate, be able to offer and express their views on a variety of subjects."
After the solitary specialist had been in Cuban custody more than a month, parliamentary leader Ricardo Alarcón suggested, "This is a man who was contracted to do work for American intelligence services." Alarcón added, "There is a new institution in the United States which is made up of agents, torturers and spies that are contracted as part of the privatization of war."
In response to those charges, DAI issued another statement to clarify that although their subcontractor's "activities included the distribution of basic IT equipment such as cell phones and laptops designed to facilitate . . . communication," he was "not working for any intelligence service." In fact, "specifically, he was working with a peaceful, non-dissident civic group -- a religious and cultural group recognized by the Cuban government -- to improve its ability to communicate with its members across the island and overseas."
Whether you call what Gross was distributing "cell phones and laptops" or "sophisticated satellite communications equipment" his humanitarian activities are considered by the Cuban government to be illegal. According to the nonprofit Center for Democracy in the Americas, Cuba's penal code provides a prison term of three to eight years for someone who "participates in the distribution of financial . . . or other resources that come from the United States government, its agencies, subordinates, representatives, functionaries, or private entities."
For the moment Gross remains in maximum security and he has not been officially charged. His wife, Judy, released the following statement, "This a very difficult time for our family. We are grateful for the support and prayers that we have received for the safe and speedy return of our husband and father.''

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