Monday, February 13, 2012

Alan Gross knew USAID mission was illegal and lied to Cuban authorities, Miami newspaper reports indicate

Convicted Maryland contractor sentenced to 15 years was a U.S. operative who distributed high tech communications equipment, knowing it was "very risky"

A Miami, Fla. Spanish language newspaper today reported that former Maryland resident Alan Gross in net effect was a U.S. agent knowingly involved in illegal activities when he was arrested in Havana 26 months ago. Accused of national security related crimes, Gross told a Cuban criminal court last year that he was nothing more than a "humanitarian aid" worker. The paper suggests Gross lied.

The feature story, carried in today's edition of El Nuevo Herald and based upon a lengthy Associated Press exposé published yesterday (Feb. 12), is sure to have repercussions for U.S.-Cuba relations. El Nuevo is a rabidly anti-Castro publication, and is targeted primarily towards Cuban exiles residing in Florida. The prominent reporting of such allegations by a journal having no sympathy for the Castro regime will undoubtedly give added credibility to the claims. El Nuevo Herald is a sister publication to the Miami Herald, which carried the story simultaneously in English.

The Alan Gross case reviewed
On Dec. 3, 2009 Alan Gross was arrested at José Martí International Airport as he was preparing to board a return flight to Washington. He was convicted of state security offenses by a Cuban criminal court in March 2011, and was sentenced to 15 years. U.S. officials, including president Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have said that Gross is a political prisoner of the Castro regime. Former president Jimmy Carter and ex-New Mexico governor Bill Richardson were unable to secure Gross' release during separate visits to the island last year.

In an article published in May 2011, former CIA agent Philip Giraldi alleged that Gross was paid $500,000 by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to travel to Cuba "to hand out laptop computers and cell and satellite phones to the local 1,000 strong Jewish community" on the island. The claims have since been confirmed by other sources. Such activities made Gross far more than a humanitarian aid worker, and required government permission under Cuban law.

Gross, who is Jewish, claimed that he had traveled to Cuba "to work with the small Jewish community there to improve their internet access and create an intranet for them." Internet access is tightly controlled by Cuban authorities, and is unavailable to most people. What is not disputed is that Gross made at least five trips to the island in 2009, always traveling under a tourist visa. The U.S. government has said that Gross' improper visa declaration was nothing more than a " technical violation" of Cuban law, but it was one of the factors which contributed to his conviction last year.

In today's reports the Miami papers claim that Gross brought the equipment into Cuba "piece by piece," in small travel bags and carry-on luggage which were less likely to be thoroughly checked at the Havana airport. Included was a type of cell phone chip used by the CIA and Pentagon to evade telecommunications detection. The chips cannot be commercially purchased, and are available only to authorized U.S. government agencies and officials. The ultimate objective was to give the people with whom Gross was working completely unrestricted internet access, and to enable them to communicate with one another, and with persons in other countries, without the knowledge of Cuban authorities.

El Nuevo Herald says that Gross is a technology and communications expert, and owned a company which specialized in wiring remote areas of the world. The paper reports that during his multiple trips to Cuba, Gross sometimes accompanied real humanitarian aid workers whom he enlisted to carry small pieces of electronics equipment in their luggage. On one such trip, he and/or his collaborators smuggled in 12 iPods, 11 Black Berrys, three MacBooks, six external hard disks of 500 gigabytes each, three satellite phones, 18 internet routers, 13 memory chips and three telephones equipped for making internet calls, together with related accessories and peripherals. Gross changed or obscured brand or model names and identification marks on some of the items before arriving on the island, to deceive Cuban customs officials, says the paper. Possession of satellite communication equipment without government permission is forbidden by Cuban law.

On his third trip to Cuba, Gross reportedly spent time in Camagüey, a city of 350,000 in the interior of the island. On Jan. 16, 2012, another U.S. citizen of Cuban origin was arrested during a brief visit to Havana. He has been charged with possession of and/or trafficking in illegal documents. Shortly after his arrest, the man was transferred to a jail in Camagüey, where Cuban officials say key evidence against him is located. It is unknown if the arrested American in that case is connected in any way to the Alan Gross affair.

According to today's articles, Gross lied to the Cuban criminal court which heard his case last March. Before his arrest Gross allegedly acknowledged in written reports, "What we're engaged in here is very risky business." On another occasion he wrote, "The discovery of satellite (phone) signals would be catastrophic." Both newspapers also claim that Gross went to extraordinary lengths to conceal from Cuban customs officials the computer and communications network he was constructing for the island's Jewish community. But Gross told the court that he had not intended to violate Cuban law and was unaware that he was doing so. His attorneys, supporters and family have issued public statements to the same effect, saying Gross was motivated exclusively by charitable considerations.

This is the second occasion in recent months that AP has reported details of the Alan Gross case which run contrary to what he and the U.S. government have said about the matter. On Nov. 28, 2011 the Associated Press identified a Maryland company, Development Alternatives Inc., as the private USAID contractor for whom Gross was working when he made his trips to Cuba. According to that story, Gross had asked the company to confirm with the Cuban government that his internet access work on the island would be lawful. The company refused to do so, and instructed Gross not to contact Cuban officials, telling him "not to worry about the project." When he expressed concern about the trips, Gross was told by a DAI company co-worker, "If anything happens, you'll be out in two days." The previous AP story also contained this statement: "A spokesman for DAI said that Gross 'designed, proposed, and implemented work' for the company, which had a government contract for a democracy-building project on the Communist island."

If last November's AP report is accurate, Development Alternatives Inc. was hired by the U.S. government to engage in "democracy-building" activities in Cuba, and DAI in turn subcontracted Alan Gross to carry out the work. But there is no evidence that Cuban officials had knowledge of or had authorized such democracy-building activities or projects.

Today's Miami newspaper articles quoted Robert Pastor, a specialist in Latin American affairs at The American University in Washington, who said that USAID programs like the one for which Gross was working should be considered covert or subversive operations, because "they're about regime change."

Gross and his attorneys have issued several press releases since his conviction declaring that he was "used, duped and was a trusting fool," without elaborating further. The matter of Alan Gross has further complicated U.S.-Cuba relations, and resulted in a hard freeze of what many had hoped would be a warming trend after Obama was elected in 2008.

A footnote on the Miami Five
Cuban authorities have made it clear that they are prepared to exchange Gross for the Miami Five, who are Cubans arrested in south Florida in 1998. The Five were accused of spying for the Castro regime, and all were given lengthy sentences for espionage. Four of them remain in prison, but one was released on October 7, 2011 after serving 13 years. He asked to be allowed to return to his family in Havana, but the U.S. government strongly objected, insisting that he serve another 36 months of conditional release in the United States. In a Sept. 16 ruling a federal judge in Miami sided with prosecutors, although she may reconsider her decision. The released Cuban remains in the U.S.

The Miami Five are national heroes in Cuba. The Castro government has repeatedly demanded their release, arguing that they were not spies. Cuba's parliamentary president implied last year that Gross will not be unilaterally released, and that if the U.S. wants him back it must free the Five. Cuban officials, including Fidel Castro, were infuriated when the judge refused to let the paroled member of the Five return home after his 13 year incarceration in the United States.

Nov. 16 - Alan Gross sues U.S. government and its "subversion" contractor, claiming deception

May 11-12 updates on the Alan Gross case:
Barack Obama should free Alan Gross:
U.S. refuses to to swap Miami Five for convicted American smuggler Alan Gross:

El Nuevo Herald report (Spanish):
Miami Herald report (English):

The Alan Gross story:
Judy Gross urges Obama, "please bring my husband home":
No Christmas pardon for Alan Gross:
Alan Gross y Los Cinco de Miami:
Alan Gross supporters take their release crusade on the road:
U.S. double standard on prisoners hurts Alan Gross:

U.S.-Cuba relations:
U.S. embargo of Cuba turns 50:
Newt Gingrich spews the same old Cold War rhetoric on Cuba:
Hemingway Bar opens at Cuban consulate in Washington:
What does Che Guevara have to do with Mercedes-Benz?:

Alan and Judy Gross

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