AP Report: Alan Gross Knew the Risks in Cuba

Readers of The Havana Note have surely had their fill – and more – of the case of Alan P. Gross, the USAID subcontractor arrested in Cuba in December 2009, and now serving a 15 year sentence for crimes against the Cuban state.   So I hesitate to write even one more word on a subject so thoroughly discussed, at least on these pages.   But an investigative report by the Associated Press’s Desmond Butler brings key, new details to light that beg a second look if for no other reason than because they change the light in which the U.S. has portrayed the case that has managed to bring U.S.-Cuban relations to their lowest point since the George W. Bush administration.

In the more than two years since Gross’s arrest, Cuban authorities have shared little information publicly on the case (though they have insinuated more than once that he was a spy), while the U.S. government has insistently cast Gross as an American humanitarian aid worker wrongly incarcerated for activities that would be legal anywhere else in the world.  (Actually, they wouldn't be legal anywhere else in the world, and certainly not in the United States, where we don't take kindly to unregistered foreign agents roaming around our country.)

Those of us who follow U.S.-Cuban affairs closely shook our heads and wondered why the Cubans hadn’t picked up an American contractor for USAID before.  That's because the USAID Cuba program is authorized under a 1996 U.S. law seeking regime change in Cuba, and in 1998 Cuba responded by criminalizing cooperation with that law (by disseminating or accepting funds or materials, for instance by the U.S. government). 

History has a lot to do with it.  The United States has been trying to either destabilize Cuba, assassinate its leaders, starve its people into rebellion or similarly isolate and punish the island nation for more than fifty years.  Both sides have broken faith on previous attempts at rapprochement.  And so working in Cuba, even in the most transparent of cases, is not a simple assignment. 

Judy Gross, Alan Gross's wife, suggested last year that Gross’s employers at Development Alternatives Inc. underplayed the threat to Gross if he were caught by Cuban authorities, implying that Gross wasn’t totally unaware of the potential consequences of his actions.   But Gross’s own trip reports make clear he understood the risks he was taking.  “This is very risky business in no uncertain terms,” he wrote in one of his trip reports. 

It’s often been reported that Mr. Gross simply brought cell phones and laptops to Cuba for Cuba’s Jewish community - though it's not clear why, since the tiny Jewish community actually had better access to the internet and counterparts around the world than do millions of other Cubans.  The AP investigation revealed that the crucial part of Gross's contract was to establish three satellite communications networks that could not be detected by the Cuban government.  According to a final trip report provided to USAID after Gross’s arrest and obtained by Butler, Gross brought highly sensitive communications technology on his final trip, a special SIM card that could hide the network signal from the Cuban government.  It’s the sort of technology to which only the CIA, Pentagon or State Department would have access. Asked if he obtained it from them, a USAID spokesman said no, remarking, "We're a development agency, not an intelligence agency." 

In a statement at his trial, Gross insisted that he was “a trusting fool” and that he was “duped.”  While it’s not clear who Gross means duped him, he wasn’t the only one getting duped. His own trip reports show that Gross told Cuban Jewish community members in Cuba that he was working on behalf of an American Jewish organization when he was actually working on a U.S. government contract.  He also enlisted unwitting American Jews traveling on separate humanitarian missions to the island to help him carry his equipment into the country.  

But while Alan Gross has paid dearly for his “trusting foolishness,” the folks that sent him to Cuba have paid nothing for their foolishness.  USAID and State Department officials commenting for Butler's story insist that 1) USAID’s work in Cuba isn’t about regime change (though it’s funded under a U.S. law that explicitly seeks regime change in Cuba), 2) U.S. assistance is not covert in nature, it's simply "discreet" to protect people (though U.S. grantees aren’t required to disclose their connection to the U.S. government unless asked, and Cuban counter-intelligence penetrates the programs), and [in other comments], 3) Alan Gross broke no laws in Cuba (such as the law against collaborating with a foreign government’s regime change program).

If USAID isn’t seeking regime change in Cuba, then why doesn’t the administration fund these programs out of general aid accounts, rather than continuing them under the authority of a U.S. statute explicitly seeking regime change in Cuba?  And if the programs aren’t covert – which if they were would imply at a minimum that that they lack proper congressional oversight and that the wrong agency (USAID, rather than the CIA) is carrying them out – why not adopt a strict rule that any project grantees (or subgrantees) must disclose their connection to the U.S. government in all contacts with Cubans?

The Obama administration isn’t likely to take action on either front in an election year.   Truly backing away from “regime change” doctrine would set off a firestorm of criticism from powerful Cuban American legislators and their backers – not an insurmountable challenge at all, but an unpleasant diversion from election year discipline.  And if U.S. grantees go around the island offering help from the U.S. government, few would accept it, not least because Cuban law forbids cooperation with U.S. regime change programs. 

While we wait around for State and USAID to take a smarter approach on the Gross case, one hopes the Obama administration has carefully considered the larger questions his case raises on the appropriateness of aid workers crossing over into the intelligence domain:

"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."

Meanwhile, efforts at a diplomatic solution to Gross's predicament have so far failed.  Though Gross committed crimes in Cuba - and someone should admit it - the real threat to Cuba is not from this one man, it is the government that sent him there.  Surely we can come up with a safer way to help broaden Cubans' access to the internet than this?