Posts in USAID

Is Obama Acting Pragmatically in the Alan Gross Case?

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.

Kerry's Cuba Sanity

One would have to go back to John Quincy Adams, who served in the U.S. diplomatic service from the age of 17, to find a predecessor better pedigreed than John Kerry to lead the U.S. State Department. The son of a diplomat, Kerry is a war veteran, senior senator, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Few experiences have had greater influence on Kerry’s foreign policy views than his decades-long relationship with Vietnam, where Kerry served as a swift boat captain during the Vietnam War.

Kerry’s experience in Vietnam, where visceral ideological attitudes prevailed over rational analysis, prompted the future senator to advocate for a more realistic course for U.S. policy. A decorated veteran, John Kerry became a spokesman for veterans against the war. He learned that to promote U.S. values and interests requires awareness of the relative nature of power and the force of nationalism in the post-colonial world.

Judy Gross’ Message “from Washington al Mundo”

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.

Alan Gross's Appeal in Cuba, and Then What?

Alan Gross will have his appeal to Cuba's Supreme Court on July 22nd.  Will his conviction and 15 year sentence stand?  And if it does, will Cuba's leaders feel pressure to step in to commute the sentence and release him? 

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk offered by Bob Pastor, former National Security Advisor to President Photo by Adalberto Roque for AFP/Getty Images: Carter, who traveled with the former president this spring on his second trip to the island.  Pastor said in on-the-record comments - and I'm paraphrasing here from notes I took - that Carter left Cuba with the impression that Raul Castro wants to find a way to release Gross.  Many will say (and I agree), wait a minute, if he really wants to release Gross (whether because he believes Gross doesn't belong in prison, should be allowed to go home to cancer-stricken family members, or whether he even just wants the political stumbling block to U.S. engagement removed), he could do so right now. 

Nonetheless, if Raul Castro has either his own, his brother's, or other Cuban government hardliners' pride on his mind (and in Cuba, the US government program that sent Gross to the island is seen as an illegal foreign intervention aiming to bring down the Cuban government), what will convince him it's time to step in? 

USAID Cuba Program Fight Heats Up

Photo courtesy of Flickr/US Army Africa's photostream

It's not often you see public infighting between an administration and a Senate chairman of the same party. But last week, an impasse over USAID's Cuba program between USAID and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry heated up on the pages of The Miami Herald.  According to the Herald, somebody called somebody a "Communist dupe" and the word "backstabbing" was thrown around. 

What's the ruckus about?  Last spring, the Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate Committees charged with foreign affairs put holds on FY09 USAID funds for its Cuba program.  The two chairmen questioned the efficacy of a program which (do we have to remind anyone at this point?) has had its fair share of problems.  After successive investigations uncovered embarassing misuse of funds, fraud and embezzlement, and a lack of demonstrable or significant results, the arrest of an American USAID subcontractor in Cuba forced Congress to finally examine how practicable USAID's democracy mission in Cuba really is.  

The Chairmen seemed to come to an understanding with USAID after numerous consultations together last spring, and released their holds.  The result was a $5 million cut to the program and a shift in the program's strategy and implementation.  This spring, when USAID gave notice to Congress that it was ready to spend FY2010 funds, Kerry again held the funds (which were back to $20 million), and submitted more than a dozen detailed questions to USAID.  (The notification is here.  The questions and answers are here.)

It's pretty in-the-weeds stuff, but the upshot I get from reading it is that team Kerry thinks that USAID hasn't lived up to whatever deals were agreed to last spring.  But team USAID thinks not only has it done enough, but that it can "take" Kerry in this rematch.  How else to explain administration officials leaking an email from a Democratic chairman's office to the media?

Senator Kerry Demands Accountability for USAID in Cuba

Photo courtesy of the White House

U.S.-Cuba policy is important to Senator Kerry and he wants us to get it right. That was the message he sent last Friday when he announced he is freezing funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Cuba democracy promotion programs until a complete review of the programs is completed

Kerry’s announcement came after USAID provided a spending plan (h/t Cuban Triangle) for the $20 million it recieved for Cuba democracy promotion programs in the FY2010 federal budget. For those readers who are not avid followers of the federal budget process, the U.S. Congress is currently wrangling over the FY2011 budget, in which, yes, the Administration requested another $20 million for USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion programs.   

If it sounds like Kerry is singing a familiar tune, it’s because this isn’t the first time he’s tried to call attention to this deeply flawed program that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $150 million. Four months after American USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for his work on a USAID sub-contract, Kerry placed a hold on the dispersal of USAID Cuba democracy promotion funds to allow the State Department to conduct a review of the program.

As Kerry’s spokesman, Fred Jones said at the time, “We all want democratic change in Cuba,” Jones continued. “The question is whether American taxpayers are getting progress towards that goal.”

Unfortunately, it seems the most that came of that review was a modest attempt to broaden and de-politicize the program’s roster of recipients to include “marginalized communities” such as those living in rural areas, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as to promote grass-roots economic development. Expanding the program to encompass more traditional USAID priorities such as economic development was a good move, but it didn’t address the more fundamental concerns with the program- that it operates without the consent of the host government and under Cuban law, put Americans and Cubans involved with the program at risk.  

USAID in Cuba- Why Keep Funding Failure?

Photo courtesy of Flickr/USAID_IMAGES

An American contractor could spend 15 years in a Cuban prison because of work he undertook at the behest of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). If this tragic episode does not fundamentally transform the nature of U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba, I shudder to think what it may take.

The saga that Alan Gross and his family have been living for the past 15 months was an incredibly unfortunate accident waiting to happen. USAID knows its back door tactics place American and Cuban participants in direct violation of Cuban law. In dealing with Cuba, a country that views these programs as part of a larger strategy of regime change (with good reason), and operates one of the most formidable intelligence services in the world, it is no wonder, however regrettable, that Havana decided to make an example out of Alan Gross.

Cuba News Roundup: Airports, Party Leadership and Trial of Alan Gross

It figures that just as I get ready to take an extended leave for the next two months (during which I'll be unable to blog here as much as I'd like), U.S.-Cuban affairs would get to their most interesting - and critical - point in some time. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Xenimus86's photostreamIn recent days we've learned that April's Communist Party Congress in Cuba may not just clarify and embrace the ongoing economic overhaul, but now it will include election of new leadership - which offers the prospect that Fidel Castro will step down as party head, Raul Castro will presumably take his place, and someone else will step into the number 2 spot.  Any readers want to take a gander at that one in the comments section?

And then there's what fate awaits Alan Gross, the American contractor the Wall Street Journal editorial board today suggests went on trial in Cuba for "bringing computer equipment to the island to help Cuban Jews communicate with the disapora"?  It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is, even, and especially perhaps, for the media to ignore the parts of reality it cares to.  Gross was allegedly delivering highly advanced and unregulated satellite communications equipment (added emphasis is mine) on behalf of a foreign, and let's face it, hostile, power.  That's a big difference, particularly when we know that droves of American Jews visit the island every year to connect and make generous donations, resulting in community amenities like a computer lab.

The WSJ may in fact be absolutely right that the Cuban government is "terrified of the internet," but questioning the motives behind the application of a law in another country doesn't give you the right to expect that law to be disregarded because you believe your motives to be on a higher order.

A Road Map to Solve the Alan Gross Case

Alan Gross

by Lawrence Wilkerson and Arturo Lopez-Levy

The trial in Cuba against USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, which will begin on March 4, presents an opportunity for the Cuban government to both demonstrate the legitimate basis for nationalist defense against U.S. interventionist policy and its good will towards the millions of potential American travelers to Cuba.

By the end of the trial, it should be clear that U.S. travelers to Cuba have nothing to fear if they keep a healthy distance from regime change programs and that Washington and Havana would both gain from dismantling hostile attitudes.

The trial serves three Cuban government purposes:

Solving a USAID Tragedy.

Alan Gross

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.

Alan Gross, USAID and the MININT Video "Leak"

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."

U.S.-Cuba Talks Conclude With a Glimmer of Hope for Alan Gross?

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.

Wikileaks Cable: U.S. Should Look Within Cuban Government, Not to Dissidents, for Post-Castro Leadership

The lastest Wikileaks cable on Cuba offers up hard truths that sound an awful lot like what experts outside of government have been saying for years.  Reuters' Havana Bureau Chief Jeff Frank reports on the cable, which was published Thursday by El Pais:

U.S. Interests Section chief Jonathan Farrar said [in the cable] the dissidents deserved backing as the "conscience of Cuba," but Washington "should look elsewhere, including within the government itself, to spot likely successors to the Castro regime."
"We see very little evidence that the mainline dissident organizations have much resonance among ordinary Cubans," Farrar said. Without changes, he said, "the traditional dissident movement is not likely to supplant the Cuban government."
Farrar's comments, made in a cable dated April 15, 2009, raise questions about the wisdom of the United States' longtime policy of supporting Cuban dissidents as an alternative to the Communist government that has ruled the island since a 1959 revolution put Fidel Castro in power.
Despite claims they are supported by thousands of Cubans, Farrar said "informal polls we have carried out among visa and refugee applicants have shown virtually no awareness of dissident personalities or agendas."
He described the dissident movement as largely ineffectual, due to factors including internal conflict, outsized egos, preoccupation with money, outdated agendas and infiltration by the Cuban government.
"The greatest effort is directed at obtaining enough resources to keep the principal organizers and their key supporters living from day to day," Farrar wrote.

In The Baltimore Sun: "Alan Gross: A Victim of U.S. Policy on Cuba"


"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:

When Hip Hop Is More Effective Than USAID

This is a Guest Post by Romina Ruiz-Goiriena

After fifty years with a single-party government and more than half the Cuban population born after the triumph of the Revolution, many followers of Cuba  have fixated themselves with hopes of an emerging generation "hungry for change." However as I pointed out in an article for El Mundo that analyzed the state of opposition movements ten years after Oswaldo Paya launched the Varela Project, clearly delineated dissident movements have been ineffective in galvanizing an increasingly alienated and politically apathetic Cuban youth.

While scholars and analysts believe there are multiple reasons for this rift, for the younger generation; their formative years on the Island were marked by the demise of the U.S.S.R. The fall of the Berlin wall not only symbolized an end to Communism as they knew it but with it economic subsidies, education opportunities to the Eastern Bloc and the realization that their ideological identification with a bigger political movement had been obliterated. While their parents or grandparents had enjoyed the fruits of the Soviet-Cuban relationship, they would have to battle out brutal economic strife and a passé political narrative that had failed them--alone.

Youth looked elsewhere and Cuban hip-hop was born.

Washington Post Editorial on Cuba Plays the Jewish Card

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.

How to Wean Miami off the USAID Cuba Program

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: