According to the Cuban daily newspaper Granma [es], United States Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor and United States (US) citizen Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba on March 12, 2011, after being convicted of illegally distributing information technology equipment to Cubans.
Under the court ruling in Cuba, this constituted an “[act] against the independence or territorial integrity of the state.”
Cuban authorities arrested Gross at José Martí International Airport in Havana on December 3, 2009, when he was attempting to leave Cuba after his fifth visit to the island. Gross had brought IT equipment to small civil society groups there while working as a consultant for Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), a for-profit international development company that is a frequent subcontractor with USAID. Gross entered the country on a tourist visa (rather than a special visa for aid workers), and did not have government permission to distribute these materials.
He was held in a high-security Cuban prison for fifteen months, without any formal charges, and his March 2011 trial was closed to reporters. Cuban authorities have released only very general statements about the proceedings. Press covering the event have relied on the accounts of different figures involved, which has led to a somewhat uneven public understanding of exactly what Gross was doing in Cuba.
Cuban Triangle author and Cuba policy expert Phil Peters has exposed some of the holes in mainstream coverage of this case. He has directed readers to both USAID and Cuban legislative documents proving that in 1999, the Cuban government made it illegal for Cubans to receive assistance from USAID programs. In a post written shortly after Gross’ arrest, Peters commented on how the Cuban government views these programs:
Havana tends to see [USAID] as part of an off-and-on, 50-year U.S. effort to [affect] regime change…[they] lump the current program in with the embargo, the Bay of Pigs, and a long list of covert and overt [US] efforts to overthrow their socialist government.
He argued that regardless of how good Gross’ intentions may have been, the program he was working for is seen as a force for political subversion in Cuba. He wrote:
It’s one thing to run civil society programs in countries where the local government is unopposed, it’s quite another to do so in a communist country that perceives the program as a national security threat.
Gross is also mentioned in the viral “cyberwar” video released in February of 2011, which featured Cuban cyber security expert Eduardo Fontes describing US efforts to undermine the Cuban government by installing secret WiFi hotspots around the island, as part of a “cyberwar” tactic.
The Cuban government has interpreted this as a threat to national security, but this is contingent upon what they believe about the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in this context. This then raises the question: exactly what did Gross bring to Cuba? On this subject, blogger and Cuba scholar Larry Press notes that different media reported items ranging from “sophisticated satellite communications equipment” (Raúl Castro, quoted in the Washington Post), to “cell phones, laptops and other communications equipment” (The New York Times), to “BGAN Satellite ground stations” (El Progresso). [Note – BGAN stands for Broadband Global Area Network]
Larry Press writes:
[L]et's assume he brought it all — cell phones, laptops, and BGAN ground stations, and that he was doing so on a USAID contract. How much damage could he have done? Cell phones and laptops are increasingly available in Cuba, so those…would not have made a significant difference. What about BGAN ground stations, which can be used for clandestine Internet connectivity? I discussed the limited capability of BGAN equipment in a previous post — a few BGAN ground stations would have no practical impact.
Without taking a position on the right…of the US and USAID to meddle in Cuban affairs, the efficacy of that meddling or Alan Gross’ motives, it seems clear that what he allegedly tried to do would not have made a difference even if he had succeeded.
Regardless of the potential impact (real or imagined) of what Gross attempted to do, it is clear that the Cuban government chose to prosecute Gross because he represented an example of a program that they see as a threat to national sovereignty. Many Cuba-focused advocacy groups are using this as a case for why such programs should be permanently discontinued in Cuba, but it remains to be seen what difference this will make.
Cuban blogger Iván García remarked that, “[t]he real enemy of the Castros is not Gross. The American is nothing more than a good currency of exchange. It’s not bad for negotiating with the Yankees. Or as a political show. Little more.”
If Gross is lucky, the US will find some way to bargain with the Cuban government so that he can be sent home, and the real issues at hand can come to the fore.