Alan Gross, a Maryland-based USAID subcontractor detained in Cuba in December 2009, is finally about to get his day - or days - in court on March 4th. His family, and U.S. consular officials will be allowed to attend the trial.
As CBS Havana Bureau Chief Portia Siegelbaum reports, there may be a surprise witness in the room too. Finally, a member of the Jewish community has stepped forward to say he did encounter Alan Gross, several times. But William Miller, former Vice President of the the Templo Beth Shalom in Vedado, says Gross's activities "had absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish community," as State Department officials have repeatedly insisted. Though Miller wouldn't elaborate on exactly what role he'll play in Gross's trial, he revealed he'll be "a part of it." And, then he added this, clear as mud:
"The solution to the problem is coming . . . better for the government to explain everything."
It's hard to imagine Miller would utter one word the government didn't want revealed in such a sensitive case. For those of us who saw this whole saga as an unfortunate dragging of one man and his family into a tortured diplomatic relationship, Miller's comments about a "solution" offer hope that Gross could soon return to his family.
The Cuban government has announced a new phase of the Alan Gross saga. According to the official note in Cuban newspaper Granma, prosecutors will seek a 20 year sentence against Gross under the Cuban sovereignty defense law. This law was passed by the Cuban National Assembly in 1999 as a nationalist antidote against the American interventionist regime change programs promoted under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
The fact that Mr. Gross will finally have his day in Court is positive. It brings his situation closer to international standards regarding the human right to legal counsel and a fair and impartial trial. The Cuban government will have the chance to present Gross’ alleged violations of Cuban laws and expose the ways in which the USAID Cuba program differs from the legal and good practices of international development assistance. These factors might create conditions for a political solution of his case negotiated by Havana and Washington.
A USAID sub-contractor, an American interested in social development, Alan Gross spent more than a year behind bars in Havana without formal charges. His family has paid a major emotional and financial toll for his absence. His daughter, Shira, has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy without having her father by her side. His wife Judith, his family, and his congregation all bemoan his absence.
Gross’s imprisonment is the direct result of the design flaws in USAID’s Cuba programs that the Obama Administration inherited from its predecessor. The agency is conducting programs on the island that place Cubans at risk of severe prison sentences without informing them of the risk they take.
Earlier this week, we noted that Cuban prosecutors plan to finally try an American citizen (and USAID subcontractor) held in Cuba during what appears to have been an exhaustive 14 month investigation for crimes against "the independence or territorial integrity of the State." They plan to seek a 20 year prison sentence.
Right on the heels of that announcement, someone slipped Cuba's most celebrated independent blogger Yoani Sanchez - "Viva el Cubaleaks!" writes Sanchez - a copy of a Cuban Ministry of the Interior briefing describing how the United States's war against Cuba has moved into cyberspace. In this video, the MINIT briefer describes how, since at least 2008 (and, notably, even today under the Obama administration) the United States has actively sought to place satellite communications networks in Cuba free from Cuban government control and recruit Cubans to maintain them. And, right on the heels of that leaked video being posted by Yoani on her blog, Yoani now reports that the Cuban government has ceased blocking access to her blog from the island.
That's a lot of drama and intrigue for one week, but chances are this is only the beginning. As Phil Peters notes in his excellent analysis of the MINIT video, this video looks less like a leak and more like the Cuban government's opening statement in the upcoming trial of Alan Gross. (All the more ironic that the video was leaked to Yoani Sanchez, one of the subjects treated in the video and a blogger the Cuban government considers to be "manufactured" by the U.S. and allies in Europe.) For those who want to skip the video, and even the transcription at Cafe Fuerte, or the translation available at Translating Cuba, and just get a synopsis of the main messages in the video, then I recommend you hop over to The Cuban Triangle here and here. Here's a taste of that analysis:
If you read the transcript, what Cuban government messages can you derive? I think they are these:
- To Latin American governments and publics, and beyond: “Obama is no different than Bush; same economic sanctions against Cuba, same attempts to bring down our Revolution.”
- To friendly governments: “You might want to check what USAID is up to in your country.”
- To international public opinion: “We have young people who are smart, tech-savvy, and as committed as any historico to defending Cuba.”
To USAID and its contractors and President Obama: “We’ve got your number."
The fourth round of U.S.-Cuban migration talks wrapped up in Havana this week, with just two newsworthy tidbits. The Cuban government allowed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to visit with the American USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, who has been detained in Cuba for more than one year now without charges, and, Jacobson and the American delegation visited with Cuban dissidents, in spite of the Cuban government's request that they not do so. The latter evoked an angry response from Cuba's foreign ministry, which described the U.S. delegation's visit as a "flagrant violation of the international norms and principles" under which the two countries should operate (my translation below):
"This act confirms once again that there's no change in the U.S. policy of subversion and interference in Cuban internal affairs, and that its priority continues to be to encourage internal counterrevolution and promote destabalizing activities, while it intensifies the embargo and the persecution of Cuban financial and comercial transactions around the world."
When this same thing happened last year, right down to the immediate and angry "we asked you not to" response from Cuba, I concluded it was all essentially a show; Cuba asks the U.S. not to use the occasion of diplomatic talks to visit (and, as they see it, elevate) internal critics, the U.S. delegation went ahead anyway, and Cuba threw a fit on principle. I still believe that to be the case, but I don't see the Cuban concerns, particularly as expressed this year, as cosmetic. What they are essentially saying is, 'you Americans come here (and leave here) saying how willing you are to cooperate with us, but out of the other side of your mouth, while you're still standing on Cuban soil, you make only gestures of disrespect, and oh by the way, in just this last year you've been trying to strangle us even harder than before - what gives?'
It might be a bit of Kabuki theater, but I find myself wondering if the Cuban side has decided to put up with these visits not because they don't really care (what impact do they truly have?) but because that's the price they must pay for continued talks. While we haven't seen a big agreement signing come out of these talks, they are an important way to raise concerns and build trust. And with big changes underway in Cuba, and the potential for President Obama to win a second and (presumably) less politically penned-in second term, I doubt either side wants to jeopardize this channel. Six, eight years ago, talks such as these could so easily be blown up by two very trigger happy sides.
"It's been said that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
No case illustrates this suffering more than that of Alan Gross, a Maryland resident and USAID subcontractor who was working to connect the Cuban Jewish community to the Internet and was detained by Cuban authorities one year ago. Campaigning for his release these many months, his wife, Judy Gross, fears that her husband has become a "pawn" in the half-century Cold War between the United States and Cuba."
That's an excerpt from a commentary that fellow THN contributor Arturo Lopez-Levy and I published in today's The Baltimore Sun. The piece examines not just Alan Gross's case, but the history of the controversial USAID program for which he was working, and other major flaws in the program that impact not just US contractors but the Cuban "beneficiaries" too. Arturo, who has deep roots Cuba's Jewish community, is deeply frustrated over what he sees as the US government's failure to obtain the informed consent of Cubans on the ground. To read the whole piece, click here.
We're pleased that The Baltimore Sun wanted to dig a little deeper into complex and sensitive issues such as this one, which, in its myopic editorial of December 7, The Washington Post utterly failed to do. While we agree with the Post that it is long past time for the Cuban government to give Gross a fair hearing or let him return home to his family, this tragedy didn't transpire in a vacuum. U.S. policy and the Obama administration itself, which never conducted the policy review Secretary Clinton promised Senator Richard Lugar nearly two years ago at her confirmation, bears crucial responsibility too for landing Mr. Gross in his current predicament.
Judy Gross, who in a letter to The Miami Herald called on Presidents Obama and Castro to improve the tortured relationship of which she considers her husband a victim, also talked to The Forward recently. Here's a snippet from the Jewish Daily Forward website:
I wish I could commend the Washington Post Editorial Board for shining a light on the plight of Bethesda-based Alan Gross, who has spent a year in a Cuban jail cell without charges. Truly, I do. Because on this I am sure most everyone can easily agree: it is long past time for Cuban authorities to give Mr. Gross his day in court or else set him free.
But Monday's editorial, "Cuba's Jewish Hostage," crossed a line when when it irresponsibly led readers to believe that Gross is in prison in Cuba because he's Jewish, and because he was working with the Jewish community.
"Raul Castro's attempt to win foreign favor and investment for Cuba's moribund economy took a particularly cynical turn on Sunday, when the dictator celebrated Hanukkah with Havana's tiny Jewish community. Broadcast on state television, the event was designed to prove that the regime doesn't share the anti-Semitism of allies such as Iran and Venezuela. There was just one problem: No mention was made of Alan P. Gross, an American from Potomac who passed the holiday in a Cuban military facility, where he has been imprisoned for a year without trial because he tried to help Cuba's Jews."
If we've explained it once here at THN, we've explained it a thousand times (as have countless other Cuba analysts): Alan Gross most likely ran afoul of Cuban authorities by traveling to Cuba on a tourist visa (when he was not a tourist) to complete a mission directed and funded by the United States Government. Whether we find its implementation draconion or not, Cuba has a law against that kind of thing (so do we, by the way, it's called the Foreign Agent Registration Act), and the words "Jews of Cuba" don't appear anywhere in it.
An unflinching look at what happened here should lead The Washington Post and other interested media to question whether the State Department bears some responsibility for sending private Americans like Alan Gross into a country to break its laws.
It's also worth asking whether the U.S. government committed a huge blunder by expanding USAID's Cuban democracy program efforts previously focused on declared political dissidents to nonpolitical groups like Cuba's Jews, and thus forcing them into a political battle for which they never asked.
Maybe the next Washington Post editorial will start raising some of these tough questions.
Today marks one year since a USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross of Bethesda, MD, allegedly helping the Cuban Jewish community connect via internet to the Jewish community outside of Cuba, was taken into Cuban custody at the conclusion of his fifth such trip to the island. Cuban authorities maintain that he broke Cuban laws, and have even suggested in a couple of instances that he was a spy. U.S. authorities, meanwhile, insist that Gross did nothing wrong, broke no laws, and that Gross's work would not have been a problem in other countries around the world. Alan Gross's wife considers her husband a political pawn, and believes both the U.S. and Cuba could take steps to improve relations and in the process, bring her husband home.
I'm with Judy Gross on this. If Alan Gross violated Cuban laws, he should know and face the charges against him in a fair and open trial.
Unfortunately, Cuba's failure to move the case along has merely enabled Washington's own immobility. Simply demanding his release, as the State Department again did once again yesterday, clearly isn't getting anywhere. It would be a lot easier to sit back and fold our arms ("We don't negotiate with hostage takers!") if our own government hadn't played a starring role in Gross's predicament in the first place. Beyond the intrepid oversight efforts of Senator John Kerry and Congressman Howard Berman (whose committees have jurisdiction over the program) there's been zero effort - beyond a cursory "at your own risk" warning to future USAID Cuba program contractors - from the U.S. side to take responsibility for what happened here. And in that vacuum, Tracey Eaton reports, people like former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, continue to offer platitudes like this one:
Yesterday's Miami Herald featured a plea from Judy Gross, wife of the American USAID subcontractor who has been held in Cuba for 11 months (under investigation and without any formal charges filed yet), to Presidents Obama and Castro to "be different than your predecessors, change the tide of bilateral relations."
Who doesn't love Al Kamen's "In the Loop" column in The Washington Post? His scoop is always well researched and substantive, while bringing a little bit of much-needed levity to the news about town. So naturally I chuckled when i read today's bit on Cuba, which began thus:
"He may be the last one to figure it out, but Fidel Castro's recent observation to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic that the Cuban economic model "doesn't even work for us anymore'' was nonetheless stunning."
But while Al Kamen keeps us in the loop on so many matters, he was a bit off the mark in the case of Alan Gross, the American who traveled to Cuba on a USAID sub-contract, and, as Kamen writes, remains "imprisoned in Cuba for the crime of distributing cellphones and laptops in Cuba's tiny Jewish community."
To better understand the circumstances around Mr. Gross's plight (he's been in prison since last December), Kamen need have looked no further than the September 3rd edition of the venerable Jewish weekly The Forward (or visit its sister publication, The Daily Forward). In it, Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuban Jew who immigrated to the United States via Israel several years ago but still maintains close contacts with Cuba's Jewish community, wrote:
"Gross was not arrested because he is Jewish, nor is it likely that he was imprisoned because of his efforts to help Cuba’s Jewish community with communications technology. Rather, Gross appears to be a victim of failed American policy toward Cuba and a paranoid Cuban government that is holding him without trial.