Maggie Alarcón

Posts Tagged ‘USAID’

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

 

 

 

 

 

Spring is in the air

In Alan Gross, CAFE, Cuba, Cuba/US, Cuban 5 on April 19, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Margarita Alarcón Perea

Spring is in the air. It is a constant much like Pi, happens every March 21st whether it’s snowing or raining or bright and sunny.  Its striking  that on this same date,  March 21st, was also the birth of Benito Juarez, known as the Benemerito of the Americas, title bestowed on him by the people and government of Colombia on May 1st of the year 1865, because of his unrelenting struggle to free Mexico and gain independence.

While president of Mexico, Juarez had a maxim that lives on today in the Mexican nation: “Among individuals and nations alike, respect for the rights of other people is what constitutes peace”. This statement always comes to mind when I think of the place Cuba has held in the region since its independence from Spain in the XIX century.

Cuba’s rights as a nation have never been respected by other nations or individuals, ever.  After the island garnered its independence from Spain the Paris Treaty left the island at the bequest of the Government of the United States and it remained so till 1959 when the Revolution of Fidel Castro triumphed establishing a socialist government in the country. Although the Cuban Revolution brought about much needed change on a social level, educating the uneducated, bettering conditions outside of the capital and establishing universal health care as the main government strategies to help its people, the country still depended because of an embargo imposed by the US on the next best option, the Soviet Union, and again, Cuba depended on someone else and much of its sovereignty was put on hold. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union as a country and a concept, Cuba was left stranded economically, politically and even socially.

Those were very difficult times, but the social benefits that still existed on the island were still stronger than the hardship and the Cuban people continued in their strife to advance, even if alone. The embargo against the island continued as it does today, but the rest of the world began to slowly open up to Cuba, and not just because of His Holiness John Paul II desire that this be so.  Cuba had proven over the years that it had something to offer and that sovereignty and independence were not to be gambled with. Cuba has never been a satellite of the Venezuelan Bolivarian Revolution, although the relationship with it  and with Hugo Chavez was strong. The difference between the two moments in time is simple: during the first forty some years of the Revolution the country had to build itself up from scratch, by the time Chavez and his oil and social justice powered revolution came to power, Cuba already had sufficient bargaining chips to stand on its own and level the playing field. No longer were the stakes as lopsided as they had been in the past.

The Soviet Union is no longer around, neither is Chavez,  and his Revolution looks to be walking on unsteady ground, which is sad not only for Cuba on a personal and national note, it is also sad for the rest of Latin America as a whole. For no matter what one may opine on President Chavez, he did put the continent on the forefront and he did bring much needed changes to both the nation of Bolivar and the rest of the region. Yet the one thing that has not changed, the one thing that remains the same, is not just spring on the 21st of March. The one thing that remains the same is that on April 30th, well into spring, the secretary of state of the United States will have to submit his recommendation to the president on whether to keep Cuba on the list of terrorist nations or not.  Keeping Cuba on the list means no chance on earth of giving the president even the slightest chance of moving forward on bettering relations. Relations which if were to compare to a tennis ball, are now, and have been on the White House´s court for a number of years now.

More recently during the last Congressional visit to the island when President Raul Castro told US Congress members that a sit down with all cards on the table was in the offer.

It is true, Cuba has Alan Gross in jail. But he is being detained because he came down with an agenda to help undermine the Cuban government or regime, however you want to put it. Cuba has the same although slightly different situation in the US. Five Cuban intelligence agents are still in prison in the US. But their crime was never trying to undermine the US government to which they not only had no access, they also had no intention of doing, and quite frankly it would have been the most foolish of intentions.

The Cuban Five were in the US collecting information from US based paramilitary terrorist organizations in Miami which have been plotting, conspiring and bringing about terrorist acts against the Cuban people for over 50 years. They not only plot against Cuba and its people on the island, they also plot and have achieved to harm, destroy, terrorize and kill those who, whether Cuban or not, have the interest in forging better more rational relations with the island.  These terrorist groups have names, Omega 7, Alpha 66, Vigilia Mambisa, Brothers to the Rescue  and others. They have henchmen and they have leaders, one of which is infamously well known in Miami as one of the cities proud citizens, Luis Posada Carriles, a man who has more blood on his hands than most have running through their veins.  The Cuban Five infiltrated the US under false identities, this is true. They also infiltrated these terrorist organizations under false pretenses  But they did all of this in order to protect Cuba and those who want a normal life between Cuba and the US. News flash: they also, did most if not all of this, with the acquiescence of both the US government and the FBI.

Exchanging them for Alan Gross may not seem like the logical thing to do, but not on the US side, after all, Gross was accused of something he did do and something which is illegal not only in Cuba and the rest of the world, it is also illegal in the US: in theory, you are not allowed to openly try to topple foreign regimes in the United States of America. Heck, even Alan Gross accepts responsibility for his actions and recommends he be exchanged for the Cuban Five.

Now,  Secretary John Kerry has to decide if Cuba, an island that has never committed a terrorist act against the US or any other nation for that matter, should remain on an infamous obscene list.  Cuba deserves to be treated with the same respect it does its neighbors and colleagues in the world arena, it doesn’t set standards, it doesn’t disrespect others rights to decide, it thus, should be commended for its desire, as put by Juarez , to establish peace.

Unlike the unvarying Cherry Blossoms in DC and Pi, let’s hope Mr Kerry’s decision breaks one constant this Spring.

The Cuba Lobby

In Politics, US on April 12, 2013 at 10:53 am

 

The most powerful lobby in Washington isn’t the NRA. It’s the Castro-hating right wing that has Obama’s bureaucrats terrified and inert.

BY WILLIAM M. LEOGRANDE | 

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/04/11/the_cuba_lobby_jay_z?print=yes&hidecomments=yes&page=full

 Jay-Z and Beyoncé are discovering that fame provides no immunity from the Cuba Lobby’s animus for anyone who has the audacity to act as if Cuba is a normal country rather than the heart of darkness. After the pop icons’ recent trip to the island to celebrate their wedding anniversary, the Cuba Lobby’s congressional contingent — Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — castigated the couple, demanding that they be investigated for violating the half-century-old U.S. embargo. (As it turned out, the trip had been authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department as a cultural exchange.) Still, celebrity trips to Cuba make headlines, and condemnation by the Cuba Lobby is always quick to follow. But what seems like a Hollywood sideshow is actually symptomatic of a much deeper and more dangerous problem — a problem very much like the one that afflicted U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, as now, an aggressive foreign-policy lobby was able to prevent rational debate about an anachronistic policy by intimidating anyone who dared challenge it.

 “A wasteland.” That’s how W. Averell Harriman described the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs when he took it over for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. “It’s a disaster area filled with human wreckage.… Some of them are so beaten down they can’t be saved. Some of those you would want to save are just finished. They try and write a report and nothing comes out. It’s a terrible thing.” As David Halberstam recounts in The Best and the Brightest, the destruction of the State Department’s expertise on Asia was the result of the China Lobby’s decade-long assault on everyone, from professors to Foreign Service officers, who disputed the charge that communist sympathizers in the United States had “lost China.” The China Lobby and its allies in Congress forced President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower to purge the State Department of its most senior and knowledgeable “China hands,” while continuing to perpetuate the fiction that the Nationalist government in Taiwan was the “real” China, rather than the communist government on the mainland — a policy stance that persisted long after the rest of the world had come to terms with Mao Zedong’s victory. The result was a department that had little real knowledge about Asia and was terrified of straying from far-right orthodoxy. This state of affairs contributed directly to the debacle of Vietnam.

Today, U.S. relations with Latin America are suffering from an equally irrational policy toward Cuba — a policy designed in the 1960s to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government and which, more than 50 years later, is no closer to success. Like U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s, policy toward Cuba is frozen in place by a domestic political lobby, this one with roots in the electorally pivotal state of Florida. The Cuba Lobby combines the carrot of political money with the stick of political denunciation to keep wavering Congress members, government bureaucrats, and even presidents in line behind a policy that, as President Barack Obama himself admits, has failed for half a century and is supported by virtually no other countries. (The last time it came to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly, only Israel and the Pacific island of Palau sided with the United States.) Of course, the news at this point is not that a Cuba Lobby exists, but that it astonishingly lives on — even during the presidency of Obama, who publicly vowed to pursue a new approach to Cuba, but whose policy has been stymied thus far.

Like the China Lobby, the Cuba Lobby isn’t one organization but a loose-knit conglomerate of exiles, sympathetic members of Congress, and nongovernmental organizations, some of which comprise a self-interested industry nourished by the flow of “democracy promotion” money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). And like its Sino-obsessed predecessor, the Cuba Lobby was launched at the instigation of conservative Republicans in government who needed outside backers to advance their partisan policy aims. In the 1950s, they were Republican members of Congress battling New Dealers in the Truman administration over Asia policy. In the 1980s, they were officials in Ronald Reagan’s administration battling congressional Democrats over Central America policy.

At the Cuba Lobby’s request, Reagan created Radio Martí, modeled on Radio Free Europe, to broadcast propaganda to Cuba. He named Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), to chair the radio’s oversight board. President George H.W. Bush followed with TV Martí. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) authored the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, writing the economic embargo into law so no president could change it without congressional approval.

Founded at the suggestion of Richard V. Allen, Reagan’s first national security advisor, CANF became one of the most powerful ethnic foreign-policy organizations in the United States and was the linchpin of the Cuba Lobby until Mas Canosa’s death in 1997. “No individual had more influence over United States policies toward Cuba over the past two decades than Jorge Mas Canosa,” the New York Times editorialized. In Washington, CANF built its reputation by spreading campaign contributions to bolster friends and punish enemies. In 1988, CANF money helped Joe Lieberman defeat incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker, whom Lieberman accused of being soft on Castro because he visited Cuba and advocated better relations. Weicker’s defeat sent a chilling message to other members of Congress: challenge the Cuba Lobby at your peril. In 1992, according to Peter Stone’s reporting in National Journal, New Jersey Democrat Sen. Robert Torricelli, seduced by the Cuba Lobby’s political money, reversed his position on Havana and wrote the Cuban Democracy Act, tightening the embargo. Today, the political action arm of the Cuba Lobby is the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which hands out more campaign dollars than CANF’s political action arm did even at its height — more than $3 million in the last five national elections.

In Miami, conservative Cuban-Americans have long presumed to be the sole authentic voice of the community, silencing dissent by threats and, occasionally, violence. In the 1970s, anti-Castro terrorist groups like Omega 7 and Alpha 66 set off dozens of bombs in Miami and assassinated two Cuban-Americans who advocated dialogue with Castro. Reports by Human Rights Watch in the 1990s documented the climate of fear in Miami and the role that elements of the Cuba Lobby, including CANF, played in creating it.

Today, moderate Cuban-Americans have managed to carve out greater space for political debate about U.S. relations with Cuba as attitudes in the community have changed — a result of both the passing of the old exile generation of the 1960s and the arrival of new immigrants who want to maintain ties with family they left behind. But a network of right-wing radio stations and right-wing bloggers still routinely vilifies moderates by name, branding anyone who favors dialogue as a spy for Castro. The modus operandi is the same as the China Lobby’s in the 1950s: One anti-Castro crusader makes dubious accusations of espionage, often based on guilt by association, which the others then repeat ad nauseam, citing one other as proof.

Like the China Lobby before it, the Cuba Lobby has also struck fear into the heart of the foreign-policy bureaucracy. The congressional wing of the Cuba Lobby, in concert with its friends in the executive branch, routinely punishes career civil servants who don’t toe the line. One of the Cuba Lobby’s early targets was John J. “Jay” Taylor, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, who was given an unsatisfactory annual evaluation report in 1988 by Republican stalwart Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, because Taylor reported from Havana that the Cubans were serious about wanting to negotiate peace in southern Africa and Central America. “CANF had close contact with the Cuban desk, which soon turned notably unfriendly toward my reporting from post and it seemed toward me personally,” Taylor recalled in an oral history interview. “Mas and the foundation soon assumed that I was too soft on Castro.”

The risks of crossing the Cuba Lobby were not lost on other foreign-policy professionals. In 1990, Taylor was in Washington to consult about the newly launched TV Martí, which the Cuban government was jamming so completely that Cubans on the island dubbed it, “la TV que no se ve” (“No-see TV”). But TV Martí’s patrons in Washington blindly insisted that the vast majority of the Cuban population was watching the broadcasts. Taylor invited the U.S. Information Agency officials responsible for TV Martí to come to Cuba to see for themselves. “Silence prevailed around the table,” he recalled. “I don’t think anyone there really believed TV Martí signals were being received in Cuba. It was a Kafkaesque moment, a true Orwellian experience, to see a room full of grown, educated men and women so afraid for their jobs or their political positions that they could take part in such a charade.”

In 1993, the Cuba Lobby opposed the appointment of President Bill Clinton’s first choice to be assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Mario Baeza, because he had once visited Cuba. According to Stone, fearful of the Cuba Lobby’s political clout, Clinton dumped Baeza. Two years later, Clinton caved in to the Cuba Lobby’s demand that he fire National Security Council official Morton Halperin, who was the architect of the successful 1995 migration accord with Cuba that created a safe, legal route for Cubans to emigrate to the United States. One chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba told me he stopped sending sensitive cables to the State Department altogether because they so often leaked to Cuba Lobby supporters in Congress. Instead, the diplomat flew to Miami so he could report to the department by telephone.

During George W. Bush’s administration, the Cuba Lobby completely captured the State Department’s Latin America bureau (renamed the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs). Bush’s first assistant secretary was Otto Reich, a Cuban-American veteran of the Reagan administration and favorite of Miami hard-liners. Reich had run Reagan’s “public diplomacy” operation demonizing opponents of the president’s Central America policy as communist sympathizers. Reich hired as his deputy Dan Fisk, former staff assistant to Senator Helms and author of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. Reich was followed by Roger Noriega, another former Helms staffer, who explained that Bush’s policy was aimed at destabilizing the Cuban regime: “We opted for change even if it meant chaos. The Cubans had had too much stability over decades.… Chaos was necessary in order to change reality.”

In 2002, Bush’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, John Bolton, made the dubious charge that Cuba was developing biological weapons. When the national intelligence officer for Latin America, Fulton Armstrong, (along with other intelligence community analysts) objected to this mischaracterization of the community’s assessment, Bolton and Reich tried repeatedly to have him fired. The Cuba Lobby began a steady drumbeat of charges that Armstrong was a Cuban agent because his and the community’s analysis disputed the Bush team’s insistence that the Castro regime was fragile and wouldn’t survive the passing of its founder. The 2001 arrest for espionage of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba analyst, Ana Montes, heightened the Cuba Lobby’s hysteria over traitors in government in the same way that the spy cases of the 1950s — Alger Hiss and the Amerasia magazine affair — gave the China Lobby ammunition. Armstrong was subjected to repeated and intrusive security investigations, all of which cleared him of wrongdoing. (He completed a four-year term as national intelligence officer and received a prestigious CIA medal recognizing his service when he left the agency in 2008.)

When Obama was elected president, promising a “new beginning” in relations with Havana, the Cuba Lobby relied on its congressional wing to stop him. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Cuban-American Democrat in Congress and now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vehemently opposes any opening to Cuba. In March 2009, he signaled his willingness to defy both his president and his party to get his way. Menendez voted with Republicans to block passage of a $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill (needed to keep the government running) because it relaxed the requirement that Cuba pay in advance for food purchases from U.S. suppliers and eased restrictions on travel to the island. To get Menendez to relent, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had to promise in writing that the administration would consult Menendez on any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Senate Republicans also blocked confirmation of Arturo Valenzuela as Obama’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs until November 2009. With the bureau managed in the interim by Bush holdovers, no one was pushing from below to carry out Obama’s new Cuba policy. After Valenzuela stepped down in 2012, Senator Rubio (R-Fla.), whose father left Cuba in the 1950s, held up confirmation of Valenzuela’s replacement, Roberta Jacobson, until the administration agreed to tighten restrictions on educational travel to Cuba, undercutting Obama’s stated policy of increasing people-to-people engagement.

When Obama nominated career Foreign Service officer Jonathan Farrar to be ambassador to Nicaragua, the Cuba Lobby denounced him as soft on communism. During his previous posting as chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, Farrar had reported to Washington that Cuba’s traditional dissident movement had very little appeal to ordinary Cubans. Menendez and Rubio teamed up to give Farrar a verbal beating during his confirmation hearing for carrying out Obama’s policy of engaging the Cuban government rather than simply antagonizing it. When they blocked Farrar’s confirmation, Obama withdrew the nomination, sending Farrar as ambassador to Panama instead. Their point made, Menendez and Rubio did not object.

The Cuba Lobby’s power to derail diplomatic careers is common knowledge among foreign-policy professionals. Throughout Obama’s first term, midlevel State Department officials cooperated more closely and deferred more slavishly to congressional opponents of Obama’s Cuba policy than to supporters like John Kerry, the new secretary of state who served at the time as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. When Senator Kerry tried to get the State Department and USAID to reform the Bush administration’s democracy-promotion programs in 2010, he ran into more opposition from the bureaucracy than from Republicans. If Obama intends to finally keep the 2008 campaign promise to take a new direction in relations with Cuba, the job can’t be left to foreign-policy bureaucrats, who are so terrified of the Cuba Lobby that they continue to believe, or pretend to believe, absurdities — that Cubans are watching TV Martí, for instance, or that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. Only a determined president and a tough secretary of state can drive a new policy through a bureaucratic wasteland so paralyzed by fear and inertia.

The irrationality of U.S. policy does not stem just from concerns about electoral politics in Florida. The Cuban-American community has evolved to the point that a majority now favors engagement with Cuba, as both opinion polls and Obama’s electoral success in 2008 and 2012 demonstrate. Today, the larger problem is the climate of fear in the government bureaucracy, where even honest reporting about Cuba — let alone advocating a more sensible policy — can endanger one’s career. Democratic presidents, who ought to know better, have tolerated this distortion of the policy process and at times have reinforced it by allowing the Cuba lobby to extort concessions from them. But the cost is high — the gradual and insidious erosion of the government’s ability to make sound policy based on fact rather than fantasy.

Through bullying and character assassination, the China Lobby blocked a sensible U.S. policy toward Beijing for a quarter-century, with tragic results. When Richard Nixon finally defied the China Lobby by going to Beijing in 1972, the earth did not tremble, civilization did not collapse, and U.S. security did not suffer. If anything, U.S. allies around the world applauded the adoption — finally — of a rational policy. At home, the punditocracy was surprised to discover that Nixon’s bold stroke was politically popular. The China Lobby proved to be a paper tiger; the Red Scare fever of the 1950s had subsided, robbing the movement of its political base.

Likewise, the Cuba Lobby has blocked a sensible policy toward Cuba for half a century, with growing damage to U.S. relations with Latin America. When a courageous U.S. president finally decides to defy the Cuba Lobby with a stroke as bold as Nixon’s trip to China, she or he will discover that so to the Cuba Lobby no longer has the political clout it once had. The strategic importance of repairing the United States’ frayed relations with Latin America has come to outweigh the political risk of reconciliation with Havana. Nixon went to China, and history records it as the highlight of his checkered legacy. Will Barack Obama have the courage to go to Havana?

 

 

Is Obama Acting Pragmatically in the Alan Gross Case?

In Alan Gross, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, Politics, US on January 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm

 

Professor López-Levy offers irrefutable proof that the situation in the case of Alan Gross has no other option than serious negotiation by the governments of Cuba and the United States. Prisoner exchange may be the only viable option, even when the two cases, that of Mr Gross working as a paid contractor violating Cuban law and that of the Cuban Five infiltrating paramilitary groups aiming to wrought violence against Cuba, are no  where close to being similar. -MAP

 

By Arturo López-Levy

This article was originally published at Sharnoffs Global Views 

 

The worst managed issue between Cuba and the United States during Obama and Raul Castro’s first terms has been the detention of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in a Cuban military hospital since December 3, 2009. Shirking the first requirement of pragmatism, namely “facing the facts,” the Obama Administration has created its own fictional narrative that contradict even its own documents now available to the public.

Gross is an American international development expert who entered Cuba as a non registered foreign agent. As a USAID subcontractor, his mission was to create a wireless Internet satellite network based on Jewish community centers that would circumvent Cuban government detection. The USAID program was approved under section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act, a law committed to regime change in Cuba.

Gross’s actions were covert. He never obtained the informed consent of the Cuban government or the Cuban Jewish community, which has always expressed opposition to the Helms-Burton law, particularly its attempt to politicize religious communities as tools to promote opposition groups. Mr. Gross did not know Cuba and did not speak Spanish. He loved Cuban music but that is hardly a qualifier for the type of covert mission he received from Development Alternatives Initiatives (DAI), a contractor for the US government.

All this is well-known, but Washington maintains that Gross did humanitarian work in Cuba. The US insists that the international community simply misunderstands the Helms-Burton law; it doesn’t violate Cuba’s sovereignty. USAID claims that Cuban civil society, religious groups and even dissidents who criticize the Helms-Burton approach are mistaken. The Helms-Burton law helps them; they just don’t realize it.

A new declassified document of a USAID task force associated with Gross indicates a pattern of consistent misinformation. At the head of a list of go-to-sources of information on Cuba, the program recommended Babalu blog, an irrelevant website managed by rabid pro-embargo elements.

Babalu blog does not focus on Cuba but on spreading baseless accusations and insults against Obama and his administration’s policy towards Cuba. According to one of the less insulting posts, Obama is a “Marxist tyrant” along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator John Kerry and any Cuban-American or American who disagrees with Babalu Blog writers’ McCarthyism. The fact that USAID Cuba program recommends Babalu Blog as a reliable source of information is in itself a call for closing the program until some adult guidance is guaranteed.

A message from Planet Earth to the Obama Administration

Every day Gross spends behind bars is an embarrassment for the American government. If anybody wonders why Havana is opposed to USAID plans to create Internet connections that circumvent its capacity to monitor traffic should read David Sanger’s new book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. “Olympic Games” was the code name for Stuxnet, a cyber worm that caused major disruptions in Iran’s nuclear program. According to Sanger, it was “the most sophisticated, complex cyber-attack the United States ever launched.”

But should Americans participating in USAID programs in Cuba worry about this? Cuban government officials don’t read capitalist newspapers. Oh, wait, sure they do! A team in Havana analyzes US publications, alerting their superiors of potential threats to Cuba’s national security. Although Mr. Sanger’s book was published after Gross was arrested, Cuban officials have already read and analyzed it.

But, Cuba is not Iran. Havana is not a nuclear proliferator and everybody in Washington knows that Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism is a sham. The use of the Stuxnet cyber worm against Iran was justified. The Iranian nuclear military program is an existential threat to Israel and a game changer of the balance of power in the Gulf against the United States and its Arab allies. Iran has lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency about its facilities and programs.

So why would Cuban leaders fear a US cyber attack? A pragmatic approach calls for looking at how Cuba’s government views the issue. The Castros didn’t get where they are without studying Washington’s treatment of Cuba over the years. It turns out that declassified US documents reveal that efforts to overthrow the Cuban government have at times been more sophisticated than what even communist propaganda denounced. Everything has been on the table, including using the mafia to kill Fidel Castro. Washington might consider the USAID Cuba project peaceful. But any hope of Cuban accommodation to its current regime change design is unrealistic.

Time for a pragmatic approach

The Obama Administration’s cordial attitude towards the Cuban-American old-guard is a bizarre ideological commitment to those who did everything possible to prevent his reelection. Hard-liners’ insistence on rejecting negotiations in the Gross case is a transparent attempt to torpedo Obama’s overall dialogue approach with our adversaries, even when it clearly serves American national interests.

Whether American diplomats realize it or not, the Obama Administration’s fixation on Cuba’s unilateral release of Gross is making US policy looks amateurish. Even if Washington considers it unreasonable for Cuba to link Gross to the five Cuban agents arrested in Florida, it makes no sense to put on hold constructive proposals for better relations in other areas. Obama’s legacy in the hemisphere will suffer if he wastes his second term flexibility to improve US-Cuba relations because of unrealistic expectations. Incidentally, the probability of releasing Gross will improve as general relations do.

A central characteristic of pragmatism is the analysis of every challenge on its own merits without attempting to litigate, once again, yesterday’s battles. Continuing to operate our Cuba policy under an old and failed “regime change” strategy ignores the fact that the regime will soon change organically. Moving toward a comprehensive policy of engagement now is in the national interest of the United States, and is certainly in the best interests of Alan and Judy Gross.

Gross Accepted Project in Cuba Without Knowing Risks, Lawyer Says

In ACLU, Alan Gross, Blockade, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, US on December 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Risky business…

By Maria Peña WASHINGTON –

The U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, a prisoner in Cuban since 2009, was no James Bond, just someone who undertook a project without knowing what the risks were, but convinced that if any problems should arise, the United States and the company that contracted him would come to his aid, his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, told Efe. Now 63, Gross was detained in Havana three years ago in possession of satellite communications equipment he was planning to distribute among Cuba’s Jewish community under a contract with a firm hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross and his wife Judy filed a $60 million lawsuit last month against USAID and contractor DAI for allegedly failing to inform Alan of the risks associated with the mission or provide him with protection.

―The State Department has said publicly in the press that they knew that Alan was being sent to Cuba with devices that were illegal in Cuba … how can the U.S. government send a civilian to Cuba knowing that?‖ Gilbert said during an extensive interview at the offices of his Washington law firm.

Havana says Gross was illegally aiding dissidents and inciting subversion on the Communist-ruled island. Last August, Cuba’s highest court upheld the 15-year jail sentence imposed on the American five months earlier. U.S. officials and the Gross family demand his unconditional release, insisting that Gross did nothing wrong and is a humanitarian worker dedicated to Jewish causes.

Gross made five trips in 2009 – he was arrested during the last one on Dec. 3 – and according to the lawsuit, in his reports on the third and fourth trips he had started sounding the alarm about what a high-risk mission this was. ―I can tell you categorically that Alan Gross did not expect to be apprehended or detained in Cuba or spend one night in custody,‖ Gilbert said. ―For Alan, it’s been a Kafka-like experience every step of the way.‖ ―When Alan raised concerns about the trips they essentially said to him either you finish this project or we’ll find somebody else to do it,‖ the Gross family attorney said. ―Alan believed they (USAID) were looking out for him and that they would never let him get into a situation where direct harm would come to him,‖ Gilbert added. ―I believe that Alan is a very idealistic individual, idealistic to the point of being even potentially somewhat naive,‖ the lawyer said, insisting that ―USAID and DAI never should have approved this project in the first place.‖ ―

They violated their duties to Alan (and) their own rules,‖ Gilbert said of the defendants in the suit. In parallel to the lawsuit, another Gross attorney, Jared Genser, is collaborating with public relations efforts and a campaign to pressure the U.S. and Cuba to sit down and negotiate a solution. The Gross family is asking President Barack Obama to designate a special envoy with full authority to negotiate with Cuba. EFE

A Deal for Alan Gross?

In Alan Gross, CAFE, Cuban 5, Politics on December 14, 2012 at 11:32 am

A prisoner of Cold War politics ponders his fate.

 

By R.M. Schneiderman

Originally published in The Daily Beast

After Barack Obama emerged victorious from his bruising reelection campaign, perhaps no one—save the president himself—was more relieved than Alan Gross, a 63-year-old development worker serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana on charges of trying to undermine the Cuban state. Gross, a former Obama campaign volunteer, filled out his absentee ballot from inside the prison hospital where he often passes his time watching Cuban baseball on television. His hope: with the election now over, the U.S. can negotiate with the Cuban government to get him out of prison.

Ever since Gross was arrested three years ago at a Havana hotel, analysts say talks between the two countries have been mired in Cold War politics. From the beginning, the U.S. government has said that Gross was merely trying to improve Internet access for Cuban Jews. In reality, Gross was setting up wireless networks outside the government’s control as part of a provocative program by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Its aim: to promote democracy and weaken the iron grip of the communist state. Taking part in these programs is illegal on the island, yet the Cuban court made bombastic claims, and Gross’s imprisonment has been denounced as “arbitrary” in a U.N. ruling to be released later this month.

Havana disputes the U.N. ruling and is still upset about USAID’s democracy programs, but Cuban officials have reportedly said they know that Gross was not a spy and are willing to work out a deal to let him go. For more than a year now, Havana has been hinting at a tacit trade: Alan Gross for the Cuban Five, a group of intelligence agents imprisoned in the States for conspiracy to commit espionage, mostly on anti-Castro groups in Florida. With the election now behind him, Obama has some leeway, but a deal remains politically tricky. It could become more difficult if Sen. John Kerry joins the cabinet, thereby elevating Sen. Robert Menendez, a Cuba hardliner, to head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Menendez would have considerable clout in blocking the administration’s efforts to change policy towards Cuba,” said Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba analyst at the National Security Archive, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit.

In the meantime, the Gross family remains frustrated. Last month, they filed a $60 million lawsuit against USAID and Development Alternatives, the firm that hired Gross. The complaint says he received inadequate warning about the dangers of his mission, and lacked proper counterintelligence training to prepare him for dealing with the Cuban police state. USAID would not comment on the lawsuit, and Development Alternatives said it was “disappointed” by it. In the three years since he’s been in jail, the once jovial and portly Gross has lost more than 100 pounds and has become consumed by his captivity. His elderly mother and daughter have developed cancer, and in a letter to Newsweek, Gross said both sides in this Cold War conflict appear to be blowing smoke. “Either way,” he wrote, “smoking is hazardous to my health.”

R.M. Schneiderman is a writer and reporter for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He has previously worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, ESPN the Magazine, and The Tokyo Shimbun.

Judy Gross’ Message “from Washington al Mundo”

In Alan Gross, Cuban 5, Cuban Embargo, Miami/Cuba, Politics, US on September 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm

 

By Arturo López-Levy

Originally published in The Havana Note

Mauricio Claver-Carone hosts a satellite radio program by the name “From Washington al Mundo” covering international affairs. But don’t expect any diplomacy there. The program is merely his platform from which to insult the American foreign policy establishment. For example, in his August 6 show, Claver targeted Vali Nasr, the Dean of the School of Advanced Studies of Johns Hopkins University and a leading expert on the Middle East, calling him “a useful idiot” or an agent of Teheran for not advocating a regime change policy and promoting negotiations with Iran. Mr. Claver and his guest Shahriar Etminani agreed that the nuclear issue is mere “noise”.

In another episode, Claver denounced Washington’s engagement with Beijing. On April 17, Claver hosted Thadeus McCotter or “the smartest member of Congress” by Claver’s reckoning. The host and the guest shared their belief that as long as the Communist Party is in power, China remains the same. The United States should apply a Cold War policy to China because the war has never ended. According to Claver’s logic, the 40- year Nixon-Kissinger model of “unconditional” and “nonchalant” engagement with China is a case of “myopia”. It should be replaced by a “confrontational” approach. After Tiananmen Square, the United States should have applied to China a policy similar to our fifty year failure against Cuba: the embargo.

But on his September 13 show, Claver really outdid himself. Claver, who is also the main pro-Cuba embargo lobbyist in Washington, had prepared himself for a coronation but ended up a jester. His special guest was Judy Gross, the wife of the USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross who is imprisoned in Cuba. Mrs. Gross basically rebuked one by one all of the mantras of the pro-embargo lobby about a potential solution to her husband’s predicament. In a call to the State Department, she advocated for the immediate beginning of negotiations between the Cuban and the US governments to address Alan Gross’ imprisonment. She argued persuasively in favor of the US government taking its “moral responsibility” for sending her husband to Cuba. Mrs. Gross traversed Claver’s minefield of manipulation by refusing to join him in his statements against the Obama Administration’s steps toward engagement such as allowing people to people travel to Cuba since January 2011.

Mrs. Gross’ message in “From Washington al mundo” should be the compass of a national and world advocacy campaign for her husband’s release. Alan Gross is an American Jew. Americans and Jews all over the world have the commitment to care for a brother in faith and fellow citizen. Everything should be done, particularly a responsible negotiation with Havana, for Alan Gross’ release. At the same time, the campaign should take public distance from the US embargo or the USAID program under the Helms-Burton law. As Jews and Americans, we don’t have any committment whatsoever to the agenda of property claims and political revenge of the Cuban pro-embargo groups. There should be negotiations regarding Gross between Cuba and the United States, therefore we need to put pressure on Havana and Washington. Mr. Claver and those who share his “confrontational approach” to Iran, China, or Cuba should sail on their own.

The US government is responsible for the USAID programs, which have severe design problems, including the lack of a request for the informed consent of the Cuban Jewish Community for Gross’ actions. Gross was not a spy, but he was working in a secret program under section 109 of the Helms-Burton law to circumvent Cuban state monitoring of internet access in the island. Those in the State Department and USAID who sent Gross to Cuba knew that the American law he was working under is considered a violation of Cuban sovereignty not only by the Cuban government but also by the overwhelming majority of the United Nations and most of Cuban civil society, including all the main religious communities.

No matter how much we despise the communist censorship of internet, according to international law, the protection of the Cuban cyberspace is the responsibility of the Cuban State. Given the history of terrorist attacks by Cuban exiles against the island, sometimes with the tolerance of the US government, at best, and its complicity at worst, it is logical that the Cuban authorities would consider any attempt to undermine its control over its cyberspace as a serious threat to its sovereignty and national integrity.

Nothing between Cuba and the United States escapes the context of a fifty years old embargo. This policy was described by Pope John Paul II, as “illegal, immoral and counterproductive”. For decades, Cuban technological development has been forestalled by restrictions on trade with the largest market in the world, just ninety miles from its shores. Different from the USAID programs in other countries, including communist Vietnam, where the agency is cooperating with the government to create nonpartisan access throughout libraries, in Cuba there is a U.S. sponsored attempt to guarantee selective access to opponents and independent civil society actors while denying the sale of technology and access to the government and those who support it.

Gross’ predicament is aggravated by the powerful interests on both sides of the Florida Straits that favor the confrontational status quo between Cuba and the United States. Before the November elections, there is little incentive to negotiate some settlement of Alan Gross’ situation, which is implicitly connected- in the minds of Cuban officials- with the “Cuban Five,” a group of agents condemned in Miami under charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. Havana realizes that Gross’ imprisonment is drawing a lot of new attention to the cause of the Five and the many irregularities and deviations of American justice standards of their Miami trial.

In South Florida, pro-embargo hardliners have largely profited from the arrest of the Five and Gross. Although the five agents mainly infiltrated violent anti-Castro groups and did not cause any damage to US national security, the reiteration of news about the five Cuban “spies” has provided ammunition for those interested in denouncing Cuba’s alleged offensive designs against the United States. For the hard line exiles, Alan Gross’ incarceration has been a major asset in their campaign against Obama’s minimal engagement. That is why Claver and the Cuban American Representatives and Senators have argued vigorously against any negotiation. Curiously, Radio Marti, a radio station paid by the U.S. government but controlled by the Cuban American radical exiles reported Mrs. Gross’ interview with Claver but deliberately ommitted her petition to the United States government to answer positively to Havana’s negotiation offer. Such manipulation of Mrs. Gross’ opinions is cruel and shameful. The pro-embargo forces should take responsibility for Mr. Gross’ ordeal, which was partially caused by their policies of regime change.

Simultaneously, those in Havana who despise a rapprochement with the United States, wanting to delay the unavoidable economic reform, use the Five as a rallying flag to stimulate popular support, gaining time for elite accommodation without an immediate political opening. Likewise, the release of the Cuban exile terrorist Luis Posada by a Texas immigration judge contrasts with the severely bias trial endured by the Five in Miami and feeds perfectly into Cuba’s nationalist narrative of defiance and resistance against foreign imposition and US double standards in the human rights discourse.

Therefore, a solution of the Gross case should be part of a general improvement of relations between Cuba and the United States. If Obama wins a second term, he will have the flexibility he now lacks. He should rapidly negotiate the release of Gross and enter into history as the president, who promoted a rational redesign of a five-decade-old mistaken policy of isolation against Cuba. Secretary Clinton should not leave Foggy Bottom without flying the extra ninety miles to bring Gross back home. That would be the best response to Judy Gross’ wise and moving message “From Washington al mundo”.

Dawn Gable contributted to this article.

Alan Gross vs. the Cuban Five?

In Alan Gross, CAFE, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, Cuban Americans, Cuban Embargo, Israel, Miami/Cuba, Politics, US on May 20, 2012 at 2:15 pm

May 23, 2012 – Ron  Kampeas,  Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Washington

From The Jewish Exponent

Advocates for Alan Gross, who is serving prison time in Cuba, say that talk of a trade for five Cuban spies is a non-starter. But they acknowledge hopes that the Obama administration will consider lower-level concessions in exchange for Cuban considerations for the jailed American.

Insiders say that Gross’ advocates want the U.S. government to consider, among other things, more family visits for the “Cuban Five,” agents who were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 on espionage-related charges, and the permanent return home for the one among them who is now out of jail and serving probation.

The Cuban government recently came closer than ever to making explicit that the fate of the Cuban Five factors into its considerations of whether to release Gross, the State Department contractor who was convicted on charges stemming from his efforts to connect Cuba’s small Jewish community to the Internet.

Gross, who is Jewish and from Potomoc, Md., was arrested in 2009 and sentenced last year to 15 years.

“We have made clear to the U.S. government that we are ready to have a negotiation in order to try and find a solution, a humanitarian solution to Mr. Gross’ case on a reciprocal basis,” Josefina Vidal, the top official in the Cuban Foreign Ministry handling North America, said in a May 10 interview on CNN.

Vidal would not offer specifics, but prompted by interviewer Wolf Blitzer, she said the Cuban Five were a concern. “Cuba has legitimate concerns, humanitarian concerns related to the situation of the Cuban Five,” she said.

The State Department immediately rejected such reciprocity. “There is no equivalence between these situations,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said in remarks to the media the day after the interview. “On the one hand, you have convicted spies in the United States, and on the other hand, you have an assistance worker who should never have been locked up in the first place. So we are not contemplating any release of the Cuban Five, and we are not contemplating any trade.

“The continuing imprisonment of Alan Gross is deplorable, it is wrong, and it’s an affront to human decency. And the Cuban government needs to do the right thing,” she said.

On background, a source apprised of the dealings among Gross’ advocates, the U.S. government and the Cubans says that Gross’ advocates are willing to press for visits by the wives of two of the Cuban Five, Rene Gonzalez and Gerardo Hernandez. The United States has refused visas multiple times for the women, and Amnesty International has taken up their cause.

Another possible “give,” according to the source: a permanent return to Cuba for Gonzalez, who is out of jail and serving probation in the Miami area. It’s not clear what the Cubans would offer in return for such concessions, but it is likely they would draw protests from the Cuban-American community, including among stalwart pro-Israel lawmakers, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the powerful chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, who has rejected any leniency for the Cuban Five.

Ronald Halber, who heads the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and has directed much of the national activism on Gross’ behalf, said he understands the “intensity” of the Cuban-American community’s response, but said that Obama also should take into account the national interest.

“I do not believe that U.S. policy to Cuba can be held hostage by the Cuban community in Miami,” he said. “It’s American national interests that are at stake. They should be part of the conversation, I understand the intensity, although this intensity is more among the older generation, not the younger generation. Our government has to do what is in our interests.”

Gross’ family and his advocates in the organized Jewish community emphasize their agreement with Nuland’s premise: There is no equivalency between a contractor installing and training others in the use of communications equipment and five spies believed to be instrumental in the 1996 shooting of two small aircraft leafleting Cuba with pro-democracy messages, resulting in the deaths of four Cuban-American activists.

Three of the five were sentenced to life and one to 19 years. Gonzalez, sentenced to 15 years, was released last year on a three-year probation.

“We’re not in a position to negotiate that and I don’t think the U.S. government is inclined to do so,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the community’s foreign policy umbrella.

Instead, he said, “we are continuing to press the case in various fora directly and indirectly.”

That included the Presidents Conference’s recent requests that Pope Benedict XVI raise Gross’ plight during his March trip to Cuba.

Gross, who is held in a medical facility, has been visited by family, friends and Jewish leaders. He is allowed weekly calls to the United States.

Most recently he spoke with leaders of the JCRC of Greater Washington to thank them for leading U.S. advocacy on his behalf.

Gross, his family and his advocates want him to make a two-week visit to his 90-year-old mother, who is dying of cancer in Texas, after which he has pledged he will return to Cuba.

His family had voiced support for allowing Gonzalez to return home for two weeks to visit his brother. Gonzalez made the visit in March and has since returned.

Vidal said the two concessions were not equivalent.

“The cases of Mr. Gross and Mr. Rene Gonzalez, I have to tell you, are different,” she told CNN. “First, Mr. Rene Gonzalez, who is one of the Cuban Five, he served completely his term until the last day. Rene Gonzalez was not detained and was not imprisoned for attempting against U.S. national security.”

Those are the charges against Gross; Cuba says the Cuban Five were guilty only of spying on groups it considers as extremist and not on the U.S. government.

Cuba maintains that Gross’ activity on behalf of the Jewish community was a cover for installing sophisticated communications equipment. Gross has said the equipment is freely available in U.S. electronic goods outlets and online.

Halber of the Washington JCRC noted a new openness to Cuba under the Obama administration, which has facilitated travel between the two countries. President Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, is attending a conference this week in San Francisco.

Halber said the primary fault lies with the Cuban government for attempting to leverage Gross’ freedom to secure concessions for the Cuban Five.

“He is a man who is being used as a hostage, who is being used as a pawn,” Halber said. “The Cubans are using a man as a bargaining chip to get back five correctly convicted folks who committed crimes on U.S. soil.”

Alan Gross: USAID Contractor Work in Cuba – Detailed

In Alan Gross, Cuba, Cuba/US, Cuban 5, Human Rights/Derechos Humanos, Politics, US on February 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm
 
 
By DESMOND BUTLER Associated Press
Version en español Cartas de Cuba
WASHINGTON February 13, 2012 (AP)
 
Piece by piece, in backpacks and carry-on bags, American aid contractor Alan Gross made sure laptops, smartphones, hard drives and networking equipment were secreted into Cuba. The most sensitive item, according to official trip reports, was the last one: a specialized mobile phone chip that experts say is often used by the Pentagon and the CIA to make satellite signals virtually impossible to track.

The purpose, according to an Associated Press review of Gross’ reports, was to set up uncensored satellite Internet service for Cuba’s small Jewish community.

The operation was funded as democracy promotion for the U.S. Agency for International Development, established in 1961 to provide economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of U.S. foreign policy goals. Gross, however, identified himself as a member of a Jewish humanitarian group, not a representative of the U.S. government.

Cuban President Raul Castro called him a spy, and Gross was sentenced last March to 15 years in prison for seeking to “undermine the integrity and independence” of Cuba. U.S. officials say he did nothing wrong and was just carrying out the normal mission of USAID.

Gross said at his trial in Cuba that he was a “trusting fool” who was duped. But his trip reports indicate that he knew his activities were illegal in Cuba and that he worried about the danger, including possible expulsion.

One report says a community leader “made it abundantly clear that we are all ‘playing with fire.'”

Another time Gross said: “This is very risky business in no uncertain terms.”

And finally: “Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic.”

The case has heightened frictions in the decades-long political struggle between the United States and its communist neighbor to the south, and raises questions about how far democracy-building programs have gone — and whether cloak-and-dagger work is better left to intelligence operatives.

Gross’ company, JBDC Inc., which specializes in setting up Internet access in remote locations like Iraq and Afghanistan, had been hired by Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI, of Bethesda, Maryland, which had a multimillion-dollar contract with USAID to break Cuba’s information blockade by “technological outreach through phone banks, satellite Internet and cell phones.”

USAID officials reviewed Gross’ trip reports and received regular briefings on his progress, according to DAI spokesman Steven O’Connor. The reports were made available to the AP by a person familiar with the case who insisted on anonymity because of the documents’ sensitivity.

The reports cover four visits over a five-month period in 2009. Another report, written by a representative of Gross’ company, covered his fifth and final trip, the one that ended with his arrest on Dec. 3, 2009.

Together, the reports detail the lengths to which Gross went to escape Cuban authorities’ detection.

To avoid airport scrutiny, Gross enlisted the help of other American Jews to bring in electronic equipment a piece at a time. He instructed his helpers to pack items, some of them banned in Cuba, in carry-on luggage, not checked bags.

He once drove seven hours after clearing security and customs rather than risk airport searches.

On his final trip, he brought in a “discreet” SIM card — or subscriber identity module card — intended to keep satellite phone transmissions from being pinpointed within 250 miles (400 kilometers), if they were detected at all.

The type of SIM card used by Gross is not available on the open market and is distributed only to governments, according to an official at a satellite telephone company familiar with the technology and a former U.S. intelligence official who has used such a chip. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the technology, said the chips are provided most frequently to the Defense Department and the CIA, but also can be obtained by the State Department, which oversees USAID.

Asked how Gross obtained the card, USAID spokesman Drew Bailey said only that the agency played no role in helping Gross acquire equipment. “We are a development agency, not an intelligence agency,” he said.

Cuba’s communist government considers all USAID democracy promotion activities to be illegal and a national security threat. USAID denies that any of its work is covert.

Gross’ American lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, declined comment but has said in the past that Gross’ actions were not aimed at subverting the Cuban government.

Cuban authorities consider Internet access to be a matter of national security and block some sites that are critical of the government, as well as pages with content that they deem as counterrevolutionary. Most Cubans have access only to a severely restricted island-wide Intranet service.

Proponents of providing Internet access say it can undermine authoritarian governments that control the flow of information to their people. Critics say the practice not only endangers contractors like Gross, but all American aid workers, even those not involved in secret activities.

“All too often, the outside perception is that these USAID people are intelligence officers,” said Philip Giraldi, an ex-CIA officer. “That makes it bad for USAID, it makes it bad for the CIA and for any other intelligence agency who like to fly underneath the radar.”

Even before he delivered the special SIM card, Gross noted in a trip report that use of Internet satellite phones would be “problematic if exposed.” He was aware that authorities were using sophisticated detection equipment and said he saw workers for the government-owned telecommunications service provider conduct a radio frequency “sniff” the day before he was to set up a community’s Wi-Fi operation.

———

U.S. diplomats say they believe Gross was arrested to pressure the Obama administration to roll back its democracy-promotion programs. The Cuban government has alleged without citing any evidence that the programs, funded under a 1996 law calling for regime change in Cuba, are run by the CIA as part of an intelligence plan to topple the government in Havana.

While the U.S. government broadly outlines the goals of its aid programs in publicly available documents, the work in Cuba could not exist without secrecy because it is illegal there. Citing security concerns, U.S. agencies have refused to provide operational details even to congressional committees overseeing the programs.

“The reason there is less disclosure on these programs in totalitarian countries is because the people are already risking their lives to exercise their fundamental rights,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, who runs the Washington-based Cuba Democracy Advocates.

USAID rejected the notion that its contractors perform covert work.

“Nothing about USAID’s Cuba programs is covert or classified in any way,” says Mark Lopes, a deputy assistant administrator. “We simply carry out activities in a discreet manner to ensure the greatest possible safety of all those involved.”

The U.S. National Security Act defines “covert” as government activities aimed at influencing conditions abroad “where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

USAID’s democracy promotion work in Cuba was spurred by a large boost in funding under the Bush administration and a new focus on providing communications technology to Cubans. U.S. funding for Cuban aid multiplied from $3.5 million in 2000 to $45 million in 2008. It’s now $20 million.

Gross was paid a half-million dollars as a USAID subcontractor, according to U.S. officials familiar with the contract. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the case.

USAID head Raj Shah said democracy promotion is “absolutely central” to his agency’s work. The Obama administration says its Cuba programs aim to help politically repressed citizens enjoy fundamental rights by providing humanitarian support, encouraging democratic development and aiding the free flow of information.

U.S. officials say Gross’ work was not subversion because he was setting up connections for Cuba’s Jewish community, not for dissidents. Jewish leaders have said that they were unaware of Gross’ connections to the U.S. government and that they already were provided limited Internet access. USAID has not said why it thought the community needed such sensitive technology.

Asked if such programs are meant to challenge existing leaders, Lopes said, “For USAID, our democracy programs in Cuba are not about changing a particular regime. That’s for the Cuban people to decide, and we believe they should be afforded that choice.”

Others disagree.

“Of course, this is covert work,” said Robert Pastor, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser for Latin America and now director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University in Washington. “It’s about regime change.”

———

Gross, of Potomac, Maryland, was a gregarious man, about 6 feet (1.8 meters) and 250 pounds (113 kilograms). He was hard to miss. He had bought a Rosetta Stone language course to improve his rudimentary Spanish and had scant knowledge of Cuba. But he knew technology. His company specialized in installing communications gear in remote parts of the world.

Gross’ first trip for DAI, which ended in early April 2009, focused on getting equipment in and setting up the first of three facilities with Wi-Fi hotspots that would give unrestricted Internet access to hundreds of Cubans, especially the island’s small Jewish community of 1,500.

To get the materials in, Gross relied on American Jewish humanitarian groups doing missions on the island. He traveled with the groups, relying on individuals to help bring in the equipment, according to the trip reports.

Three people briefed on Gross’ work say he told contacts in Cuba he represented a Jewish organization, not the U.S. government. USAID says it now expects people carrying out its programs to disclose their U.S. government funding to the people they are helping — if asked.

One of Gross’ reports suggests he represented himself as a member of one of the groups and that he traveled with them so he could intercede with Cuban authorities if questions arose.

The helpers were supposed to pack single pieces of equipment in their carry-on luggage. That way, Gross wrote, any questions could best be handled during the X-ray process at security, rather than at a customs check. The material was delivered to Gross later at a Havana hotel, according to the trip reports.

USAID has long relied on visitors willing to carry in prohibited material, such as books and shortwave radios, U.S. officials briefed on the programs say. And USAID officials have acknowledged in congressional briefings that they have used contractors to bring in software to send encrypted messages over the Internet, according to participants in the briefings.

An alarm sounded on one of Gross’ trips when one of his associates tried to leave the airport terminal; the courier had placed his cargo — a device that can extend the range of a wireless network — into his checked bag.

Gross intervened, saying the device was for personal use and was not a computer hard drive or a radio.

According to the trip reports, customs officials wanted to charge a 100 percent tax on the value of the item, but Gross bargained them down and was allowed to leave with it.

“On that day, it was better to be lucky than smart,” Gross wrote.

Much of the equipment Gross helped bring in is legal in Cuba, but the volume of the goods could have given Cuban authorities a good idea of what he was up to.

“Total equipment” listed on his fourth trip included 12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte external drives, three Internet satellite phones known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers, 18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks, three phones to make calls over the Internet, and networking switches. Some pieces, such as the networking and satellite equipment, are explicitly forbidden in Cuba.

Gross wrote that he smuggled the BGANs in a backpack. He had hoped to fool authorities by taping over the identifying words on the equipment: “Hughes,” the manufacturer, and “Inmarsat,” the company providing the satellite Internet service.

The BGANs were crucial because they provide not only satellite telephone capacity but an Internet signal that can establish a Wi-Fi hotspot for multiple users. The appeal of using satellite Internet connections is that data goes straight up, never passing through government-controlled servers.

———

There was always the chance of being discovered.

Last year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked about clandestine methods used to hide the programs and reports that some of them had been penetrated.

“Possible counterintelligence penetration is a known risk in Cuba,” the State Department said in a written response to AP. “Those who carry out our assistance are aware of such risks.”

Gross’ first trip to Cuba ended in early April 2009 with establishment of a communications site in Havana.

He went back later that month and stayed about 10 days while a site was set up in Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city.

On his third trip, for two weeks in June 2009, Gross traveled to a city in the middle of the island identified by a U.S. official as Camaguey. He rented a car in Havana and drove seven hours rather than risk another encounter with airport authorities.

Gross wrote that BGANs should not be used outside Havana, where there were enough radio frequency devices to hide the emissions.

The report for Gross’s fourth trip, which ended early that August, was marked final and summarized his successes: wireless networks established in three communities; about 325 users; “communications to and from the U.S. have improved and used on a regular basis.” He again concluded the operation was “very risky business.”

———

Gross would have been fine if he had stopped there.

In late November 2009, however, he went back to Cuba for a fifth time. This time he didn’t return. He was arrested 11 days later.

An additional report was written afterward on the letterhead of Gross’ company. It was prepared with assistance from DAI to fulfill a contract requirement for a summary of his work, and so everyone could get paid, according to officials familiar with the document.

The report said Gross had planned to improve security of the Havana site by installing an “alternative sim card” on the satellite equipment.

The card would mask the signal of the BGAN as it transmitted to a satellite, making it difficult to track where the device was located.

The document concluded that the site’s security had been increased.

It is unclear how DAI confirmed Gross’ work for the report on the final trip, though a document, also on Gross’ company letterhead, states that a representative for Gross contacted the Jewish community in Cuba five times after his arrest.

In a statement at his trial, Gross professed his innocence and apologized.

“I have never, would never and will never purposefully or knowingly do anything personally or professionally to subvert a government,” he said. “I am deeply sorry for being a trusting fool. I was duped. I was used.”

In an interview with AP, his wife, Judy, blamed DAI, the company that sent him to Cuba, for misleading him on the risks. DAI spokesman O’Connor said in a statement that Gross “designed, proposed, and implemented this work” for the company.

Meanwhile, the 62-year-old Gross sits in a military prison hospital. His family says he has lost about 100 pounds (45 kilograms) and they express concern about his health. All the U.S. diplomatic attempts to win his freedom have come up empty and there is no sign that Cuba is prepared to act on appeals for a humanitarian release.