Maggie Alarcón

Posts Tagged ‘NBC News’

Alan Gross, American Jailed in Cuba, Vows to Come Home ‘Dead or Alive’

In Alan Gross on April 23, 2014 at 2:39 pm


From NBC News

Alan Gross, the American subcontractor jailed in Cuba, has vowed that he will return to the United States within a year “dead or alive” and is pleading for the White House to intervene, his lawyer said Wednesday.

In an interview from Havana, attorney Scott Gilbert told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell that after more than four years in 23-hour lockup, his client can’t face the thought of another decade behind bars. 

Photo Credit: Roberto Leon NBC News Havana

Photo Credit: Roberto Leon NBC News Havana

 “He will return to the United States before his 66th birthday, dead or alive,” Gilbert said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” after meeting with Gross and Cuban offcials.

Gross, 65, lost 11 pounds during a nine-day hunger strike earlier this year. It was unclear if his pledge meant he might undertake another one.

“I think Alan can be volatile, as would be anyone confined in this situation. And I take Alan’s statement not as a threat but as expression of extraordinary frustration and determination and, and as he said to me yesterday, continued hope.”

Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),was arrested in 2009 while trying to establish an online network for Jews in Havana.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for subversive activities. Gilbert said that Cuban officials reiterated their offer to begin talks about Gross’ possible release with no pre-conditions, but the U.S. has balked.

“We have asked the president to engage,” Gilbert said. “We believe the administration should do whatever it takes to free Alan, who was in Cuba in the first place on U.S.government business.”

Gross spends all but one hour a day in a cell with two other men, his lawyer said. He is allowed two short phone calls a week and his meals are “limited and mediocre,” he said.

 “He does not intend to endure another year of this solitary confinement,” Gilbert said.
— Tracy Connor


Watch  live video from Havana on Andrea Mitchell Reports   @NBC News  Havana

U.S. Secretly Built ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Stir Unrest, AP Reports

In Cuba/US on April 3, 2014 at 12:45 pm


The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” — a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned.

The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.

 Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.

At minimum, details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the U.S. Agency for International Development’s longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions, and could undermine the agency’s mission to deliver aid to the world’s poor and vulnerable — an effort that requires the trust and cooperation of foreign governments.

USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington’s ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail, and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project.

“There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord Inc., one of the project’s creators. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”

The project, dubbed “ZunZuneo,” slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet, was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.

USAID said in a statement that it is “proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people,” whom it said “have lived under an authoritarian regime” for 50 years. The agency said its work was found to be “consistent with U.S. law.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, said the ZunZuneo revelations were troubling.

“There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” he said. “There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility.”

The AP obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project’s development. It independently verified the project’s scope and details in the documents through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those involved in ZunZuneo.

 The estimated $1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, public government data show, but those documents don’t reveal where the funds were actually spent.

For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew and reached at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal the team found evidence Cuban officials tried to trace the text messages and break into the ZunZuneo system. USAID told the AP that ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.

First published April 3rd 2014, 4:07 am NBC News Online






American jailed in Cuba wants US to sign ‘non-belligerency pact’ to speed release

In Alan Gross, CAFE, Cuba, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, US on December 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Peter Kornbluh , right, stands with Alan Gross, in a picture taken on Kornbluh’s iPhone by a guard during his visit to the Havana prison where Gross is being held.

By Michael Isikoff
NBC News


HAVANA, Cuba — Three years after he was arrested in Havana, jailed American contractor Alan Gross is asking the U.S. government to sign a “non-belligerency pact” with Cuba as a first step toward negotiating his release, according to a Cuba policy analyst who just visited him.

Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist at the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research center in Washington, met with Gross for four hours on Wednesday at the military hospital in Havana where the contractor is being held. He said Gross appeared “extremely thin” — he has lost over 100 pounds since his arrest —and dispirited.

“He’s angry, he’s frustrated, he’s dejected — and he wants his own government to step up” and negotiate, said Kornbluh. “His message is that the United States and Cuba have to sit down and have a dialogue without preconditions. … He told me that the first meeting should result in a non-belligerency pact being signed between the United States and Cuba.”

Gross’ comments appear to represent a new tack in an aggressive public relations campaign to win his freedom. His supporters have planned a candlelight vigil outside the Cuban interests section in Washington D.C., on Sunday and the U.S. Senate is poised to take up a resolution Monday demanding his release, Gross’ wife, Judy, has also become increasingly critical of the U.S. government for not doing more to demand that her 63-year-old husband be allowed to return home.

Jose Luis Magana / AP

Judy Gross at her home in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 29.

“He feels like a soldier in the field left to die,” she said at a press conference in Washington last week.

Gross, who worked for an Agency for International Development contractor, was arrested by the Cubans on Dec. 3, 2009, and accused of smuggling sophisticated satellite and other telecommunications equipment into  the country to give to the island’s tiny Jewish community. Gross has said he was only trying to increase Internet access  in Cuba. But he was convicted by a Cuban court in March of last year for crimes “against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” and sentenced to 15 years.

Last month, Gross and his wife filed a $60 million lawsuit against the U.S. government and the contractor he was working for, Development Alternatives, charging he was used as a “pawn” in a U.S. government program to change the Castro regime and never advised about the dangers he faced bringing high tech satellite transmission equipment into Cuba. (The State Department, of which AID is a part and which has repeatedly called for Gross’ release, declined comment. Development Alternatives has released a statement saying it has “no higher priority” than bringing Gross home.)

Kornbluh, who has advocated closer U.S.-Cuba dialogue, was in Havana last week to attend a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. He was granted permission to visit Gross by Cuban officials. (The Cubans so far have denied all news media requests to meet with him.) He said Gross was most upset about being unable to return home to see members of his family who are ill, especially his 90-year-old mother in Texas who has cancer.

Keystone / Getty Images

Ever since U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was forced from power by rebels led by Fidel Castro in 1958, the relationship between the two nations has been fraught with difficulties.

“He really wants to see his mother, who is quite old and infirm,” said Kornbluh. When Kornbluh had his photo taken with Gross, the contractor held up a photo that read: “Hi Mom.” When he asked Gross what he wanted to get out of the lawsuit, the contractor replied: “I want to see my wife and I want to see my mother.”

To accomplish that, Gross is seeking to nudge the Obama administration, according to Kornbluh. Gross knows that his freedom “is going to depend on his government negotiating in good faith with the Cubans,” said Kornbluh. “His message to Barack Obama is: I’m fired up and ready to go. Where are you at this moment?”

Michael Isikoff is NBC News’ national investigative correspondent; NBC News producer Mary Murray also contributed to this report.

Cuba pushes swap: its spies jailed in US for American contractor held in Havana

In Alan Gross, Asamblea Nacional/National Assembly, Blockade, CAFE, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, Israel, Politics, US on December 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm
/Photo Credit: Roberto León, NBC News

A billboard in Cuba shows the Cuban Five — Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González.

By Michael Isikoff
NBC News

From NBC

HAVANA, Cuba — It seems straight out of a Cold War spy movie. A group of Cuban undercover agents sneak into the U.S. and set up a secret pro-Castro network in south Florida — receiving instructions in code through late night radio transmissions from handlers in Havana. But the FBI gets wind, tails the agents, intercepts their messages and busts them, sending the agents off to federal prison, their ringleader for life.

Today, the story of those spies — called La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network — rolled up by the feds 14 years ago is barely known in the United States. But its members, now  known as the Cuban Five, are national heroes in Cuba — the subjects of mass demonstrations, their pictures on billboards and  posters – and their petitions for freedom are championed around the world by Nobel Prize winners, celebrities like Danny Glover, even former President Jimmy Carter.

And they may now prove key to the tense impasse between Havana and Washington over the fate of jailed American contractor Alan Gross, arrested three years ago Monday for distributing sophisticated satellite equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence and/or territorial integrity of the state.” (Gross says he was only bringing Internet access to Cuba.)

While the U.S. is demanding that Cuba release Gross, who visitors say is angry and frail, having lost 110 pounds in prison, Cuban officials say they are willing to do so only if President Barack Obama will  release the Cuban agents.

“I understand what Mr. Gross is going through,” Gerardo Hernandez, 47, the Cuban Five ringleader, said in an exclusive interview with NBC News in October at his current home –a federal prison outside Victorville, Calif. “I understand his sufferings and that of his family. … If an agreement can be reached, to stop the sufferings of six families, then I welcome it.”

The idea of a swap — the release of Gross for Hernandez and his confederates among the Cuban Five — faces legal and political hurdles.

An Obama administration official told NBC News that the “imprisonment of Alan Gross, an international development worker, is not comparable in any way to that of the five Cuban agents,” noting that the Cubans were afforded their “due process rights” and convicted of serious crimes.

Cuban Five ringleader Gerardo Hernandez

Members of Congress have denounced Cuba for holding Gross “hostage” to the release of the Cuban Five. “The Castro regime has no regard for human rights or international law,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and frequent critic of the Castro regime. “The Cuba Five should serve their sentences for spying.”

And Hernandez, who sports a trim goatee and displays a hearty laugh despite 14 years in prison,  might not make the ideal candidate for a pardon or commutation from Obama — a precondition for a swap to take place. Asked if he regretted any of his actions, he smiled and said,  “I regret that I got caught.” In a follow up phone interview, Hernandez readily acknowledged that “we violated some U.S. laws” — mainly failing to register as foreign agents with the U.S. Justice Department. “We came here with fake passports. Fake identities.”  But, he added, “We act out of necessity.”

As Hernandez and Cuban officials tell it, the Cuban Five was not sent to spy on the U.S. government. In fact, the members weren’t accused of stealing any U.S. secrets (although they were convicted of conducting surveillance of U.S. military bases.) Instead, the mission of the Wasp Network, they say, was to infiltrate  anti-Castro exile groups in South Florida who Havana suspected of plotting terrorist attacks inside Cuba. Among those attacks: the notorious bombing of Cubana Flight 455 over the Caribbean in 1976, killing 73 passengers (including teenage members of a Cuban  national fencing team)  as  well as a string of hotel bombings in Havana in  1997 that killed an Italian businessman and were believed to have been aimed at disrupting Cuba’s nascent tourist industry.

“Cuba doesn’t have drones to neutralize the terrorists abroad,” said Hernandez. “They need to send people to gather information and protect the Cuban people from these terrorist actions. … I think it’s the same feeling that Americans have that defend their country and love their country when they go to infiltrate al-Qaida and send information here to avoid the terrorist acts. And the U.S. has to understand that Cuba has been involved in the war against terrorism for 50 years.”

Alan Gross in an undated family photo, left, and in 2012, after losing 110 pounds while imprisoned in Cuba.

While admitting his role in spying on anti-Castro exiles — “I would do it again,” he said — Hernandez adamantly denies the most serious charge against him: conspiracy to commit murder. His conviction on that count, which has earned him a life sentence, was based on his alleged complicity in the February 1996 shoot-down by a Cuban fighter jet of two Cessna planes flown by members of the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, killing four men.

The anti-Castro group had provoked Cuba by dropping anti-government leaflets over Havana. At the trial of the Cuban Five, prosecutors introduced messages between Hernandez and his controllers in Havana suggesting he had prior knowledge of the shoot-down. But Hernandez insists that prosecutors misinterpreted the messages and he knew nothing that wasn’t already public.

“No, sir, absolutely not,” Hernandez replied when asked if he knew in advance about the incident. “All I knew was what everybody knew: that Brothers to the Rescue through the years has violated many times Cuban air space, that there have been 16 diplomatic notes from Cuba complaining over that situation.”


/Photo Credit: Roberto León, NBC News

Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly

Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly (the Parliament) and a longtime Castro confidante, said this week in Havana that “the Cuban government publicly, front page in our papers, months before that incident had warned that we are not going to allow any more intrusions into our air space. … The order, the decision (to shoot down the planes) came from the highest level. Fidel Castro himself had said that publicly, that he was responsible for that decision.”

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Phyllis Kravitch of Atlanta concluded in 2008 that prosecutors never proved their case tying Hernandez to a plot to shoot down the planes, but she was outvoted two to one and his conviction on the murder conspiracy charge was upheld. Now Hernandez and his lawyers are appealing on another ground: that hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret  U.S. government payments to anti-Castro journalists in Miami — newly discovered through Freedom of Information Act requests — inflamed the Miami community against the Cuban Five and made it impossible for them for them to get a fair trial. The payments were mostly made for appearances on Radio Marti, a TV and radio operation funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent agency that oversees international broadcasting sponsored by the U.S. government.

In court papers, lawyers for the Cuban Five have cited articles by some of the journalists, including one that denounced the “genocidal character” of Castro’s regime and another that speculated that the real purpose of the Wasp Network was to introduce “chemical or bacteriological weapons” into south Florida. “”his information was spread throughout the Miami area and helped inflame the community against these guys,” said Martin Garbus, Hernandez’ lawyer. “It was total madness. … When the case was brought, the anti-Castro feeling in the Miami area was at a fevered pitch.”

Keystone / Getty Images

Ever since U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was forced from power by rebels led by Fidel Castro in 1958, the relationship between the two nations has been fraught with difficulties.

U.S. prosecutors dismiss as “implausible” and “unfounded” the idea that the Radio Marti payments were part of a U.S. government effort to influence the jury in the Cuban Five case.

“The jury (in the case) was carefully selected, following a searching voir dire (jury selection process) that the appellate court deemed a high model for a high-profile case, and that the trial comported with the highest standards for fairness and professionalism,” wrote Caroline Heck Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, in a court filing in July asking a judge to reject Hernandez’ motion for a hearing into the payments to the journalists. She also noted, as federal prosecutors have repeatedly done when the issue has come up, that “no Cuban-Americans – the audience (Hernandez) hypothesizes as the target of the government campaign he imagines — served on the jury.”

Unless Hernandez can somehow persuade a court to reopen his case  – or barring a prisoner swap with Gross — he would seem to have few options.

Rene Gonzalez, another member of the Cuban Five who was not convicted of the conspiracy-to-commit-murder charge, was released from federal prison on probation late last year, but has not yet been allowed to return home to Cuba to live.


/Photo Credit: Roberto León,  NBC News

Adriana Perez, wife of imprisoned Cuban agent, Gerardo Hernandez

The Cubans are doing their best to ratchet up the pressure. Just as Judy Gross has launched a public relations campaign in the United States to free her husband, appearing at a National Press Club press conference on Friday, this week the Cubans made Hernandez wife, Adriana, available for an interview with NBC News. A chemist in the food industry in Havana, she wept as she described the pain of separation from her husband — and how it has left her unable to bear children. “Every detail, every single moment reminds me of him,” she said. “I believe there are many people in the U.S. and the American people as a whole, who could convey to President Obama that there is a woman here suffering.”

Hernandez, too, says missing his wife is the hardest part of his life in prison. And he has few illusions about his prospects of being freed. “The only thing I know for sure with me is that I have two life sentences and live with that every day,” he said. “And to keep your sanity and your mind, you have to be realistic. But I would be dishonest to say that I don’t have hope.”

Michael Isikoff is NBC News’ national investigative correspondent; NBC News Producer Mary Murray also contributed to this report.

The unexpected curve

In Blockade, Cuba, Cuba/US, Culture, History, Politics, Sports, US on May 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Margarita Alarcón Perea

Major League Baseball is not my forte but I have been a fan since childhood thanks to my maternal grandmother and her intent on making sure I grew up as knowledgeable as possible about her favorite sport.

I was in New York then, so it was only logical that my “team” would be the Yankees. I have later learnt that “blue” is not exclusive to the Yanks, it is also the color of Cuba´s current “Yankee” equivalent, Havana´s Industriales team who like their predecessor Almendares, also wear blue.

During his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI visit to Cuba last month, Andrea Mitchell of NBC was in Havana from where she graced the cities Cathedral with live shots for her daily television news show. Each live feed from Havana was produced with information on the Popes activities in Cuba and spiced with interesting aspects of today’s life on the Island and each aspect was accompanied by a healthy dose of US Cuba relations.

Andrea is a brilliant journalist who has a long standing relationship with the island and a woman of great savoir faire; she is also a baseball enthusiast who knows much about the sport, how important it is in Cuba and how entwined the United States and the Island are in it´s midst’s. It is because of this that I had the opportunity to meet a legend and I will forever be in her debt.

Cuba and the US are so close regarding baseball it could well be the greatest of all ironies. It is the national sport of the two historic enemies in the hemisphere. Granted, Cuba´s relationship to baseball stems from the beginning of the previous century when the island was nothing more than a neo-colony of the US, but in spite of this and of half a century of having to hear from detractors that this is something that separates us from the rest of Latin America, Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 didn’t dream change the fact that baseball knows no politics when it comes to passion. Eliminating the sport from revolutionary Cuba would have provoked a revolution within the Revolution. So, it´s here to stay.

That is not the irony. The irony is actually embodied in a petit man who reached the ripe age of 101 this April 25th.

Conrado (Connie) Marrero, formally of the Havana Almendares is alive and well living in Havana.  He has lost his eyesight over the years but not his spunk or love of the game. He is lucid and well and can still spend hours talking baseball.

Marrero was one of Cuba´s and the US´s best pitchers of the day. He pitched curve balls to Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. He knew just how to pitch to Ted Williams who could see a ball coming a mile away.  In spite of his advanced years Marrero still recalls moments that for him are memories but for us they are an experience to cherish for a lifetime. As he recounted, “I was pitching a game against the Yankees and DiMaggio came up to bat. After a few really good pitches, some of my best, he hit one out of the park.”  Connie recalls “I went up to him after the game and said ¨Joe, you were really great today!´, and he responded, “Nah, Connie, I guess I was just having a good day.¨ and I said, ¨You crazy Joe?! ALL your days are great!” But when asked who he considers the all time best, Marrero didn’t skip a beat and responded, “They were all great! But the best of the best, in my opinion, was Babe Ruth.”

Marrero signed with the Washington Senators at the ripe age of 39 and given his 5 feet 7 inch 158Lbs frame, one can well understand why the then owner of the Senators, Clark Griffith, registered the unlikely “rookie” as being six years younger. He had his debut with the Washington Senators on April 21 of 1950 and took part in 118 games during five championships; he has been qualified as the oldest living former United States Major League player and he is a Cuban living in Cuba, today.

Conrado Marreros first MLB contract with the Washington Senators.

…therein lies the gist.