USAID undercover operative released, in first step of a U.S.-Cuba diplomatic normalization process
*Updated Dec. 25 (below)*
After more than five years in Cuban custody, Alan Gross is a free man this morning.
The island government traded the former Maryland resident for three of its own citizens in American custody since 1998, the remaining members of a group originally known in Cuba as the Miami Five.
Cuba also released a U.S. spy who had been imprisoned for more than 20 years. The unidentified man is said to be a Cuban national who provided critical intelligence to Washington which led to the arrest of the Miami Five. American officials have said they will not identify him for security reasons.
Gross, 65, was detained in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009 as he was preparing to board a flight home to the United States. He had been hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Maryland based contractor, Development Alternatives, Inc., to smuggle cell and satellite phones and computer peripherals onto the island during a series of trips over several months. In an article published in May 2011, former CIA agent Philip Giraldi alleged that Gross was paid $500,000 for the clandestine "democracy building" project. The hi-tech equipment was delivered to members of a small Jewish community in Cuba, but Gross, who traveled on an ordinary tourist visa, presented himself to government authorities as a humanitarian aid worker.
In February 2012 two Miami papers reported 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 unrestricted internet access, and to enable them to communicate with one another, and with persons in other countries, without the knowledge of Cuban authorities. Havana alleged it was all part of a USAID plot to foment political dissent and destabilize the Castro regime, which will celebrate its 56th year in power next month.
The Miami Herald and its Spanish language sister paper, El Nuevo Herald, reported that Gross is a technology and communications expert who owned a company which specialized in wiring remote areas of the world. The papers claimed that during his 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 trip Gross and 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, with other accessories and peripherals. Gross changed or obscured brand or model names and identification marks on some of the equipment before arriving on the island to deceive Cuban customs officials, said the papers, which relied upon an Associated Press investigation. Possession of satellite communication devices without government permission is strictly forbidden by Cuban law.
According to the Miami papers, Gross lied to the Cuban criminal court which tried his case in March 2011. Before his arrest Gross acknowledged in written reports filed with Development Alternatives, "What we're engaged in here is very risky business." On another occasion he wrote, "The discovery of satellite (phone) signals would be catastrophic." The papers also claimed 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 he was doing so. His attorneys, supporters and family issued public statements to the same effect, saying Gross was motivated only by charitable considerations. President Obama and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton long called him a political prisoner. Alan Gross knew USAID mission was illegal and lied to Cuban authorities, Miami papers indicate.
In November 2012, Gross and his wife Judy sued Development Alternatives and the U.S. government in a District of Columbia federal court, essentially acknowledging many of the key facts reported by the Miami newspapers. A judge dismissed their claims against the government on immunity grounds in May 2013, while Development Alternatives settled its portion of the case for an undisclosed sum. The Gross family maintains it has been financially destroyed and emotionally taxed to the limit by Alan's five year confinement. Alan Gross sues U.S., claiming deception.
Several prominent Americans tried to win Alan Gross' freedom, including former president Jimmy Carter and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson tried too, when he traveled to the island in September 2011. But his improvident public comments about the case backfired, and served only to infuriate the Cubans. Richardson has since acknowledged his errors.
From the beginning the Cuban government had made it clear that it would exchange Alan Gross for five Cubans arrested in south Florida in 1998. All were charged with espionage related crimes and given long sentences. Three remained in federal prisons until their release this morning. Another, René González, was paroled in October 2011 after serving 13 years. Born in Chicago, González held both American and Cuban citizenship. On release he asked for permission to rejoin his wife and daughters in Havana, and to serve out the rest of his parole term on the island. But a Miami federal judge refused. U.S. shows revolting double standard in René González case. Only after González agreed to relinquish U.S. citizenship in May 2013 did the court allow him to complete the remaining months of his parole in Cuba. Miami Five member may stay in Cuba if he renounces citizenship.
A fifth member of the group was paroled after González.
The Miami Five are national heroes in Cuba. The Castro government had repeatedly demanded their release, arguing that they did nothing illegal. Cuban officials were infuriated when the Miami judge refused to let González return home after his lengthy incarceration in the United States.
U.S. officials claimed the Miami Five were members of a spy ring known as La Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network. There has been endless litigation since their convictions in a Miami federal court in the early 1990s, with many prominent supporters, both in the U.S. and internationally, contending the men did not receive a fair trial in a judicial district well known for rabidly anti-Castro sentiment.
Robert Pastor, national security adviser for Latin America to former president Jimmy Carter, told the New York Times several years ago that "Holding a trial for five Cuban intelligence agents in Miami is about as fair as a trial for an Israeli intelligence agent in Tehran. You'd need a lot more than a good lawyer to be taken seriously."
In a December 2013 letter to president Barack Obama (full text below), Alan Gross - who said "I have lost almost everything in the last four years" - seemed to indirectly acknowledge much of what the Cubans had accused him:
"As I reflect on these last four years, I find myself asking the same question – why? Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me. It is clear to me, Mr. President, that only with your personal involvement can my release be secured. I know that your administration and prior administrations have taken extraordinary steps to obtain the release of other U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad – even citizens who were not arrested for their work on behalf of their country. I have carried out missions on behalf of my country with pride, even in the face of risks to my safety. I did so because I believed in my country, in my government. I still want to believe my government values my life and my service, and that a U.S. passport means something. I refuse to accept that my country would leave me behind. Mr.President, please take whatever steps are necessary to bring me home."
Dec. 25 - Less than a week after he returned to American soil, the U.S. Agency For International Development settled an administrative claim this week with Alan Gross and his wife for $3.2 million. The Gross' had lost a 2012 lawsuit against the government, but continued to press ahead with legal claims. USAID said its payment of the settlement was not an admission of liability. Gross argued in court documents that he had been duped by Development Alternatives, Inc., a USAID Maryland subcontractor which carries out clandestine projects for the government. Gross admitted in his federal lawsuit that he had been much more than a humanitarian aid worker for Cuba's small Jewish community. Development Alternatives settled privately with Gross in 2013 for an undisclosed sum.
May 12, 2012 - MGR Opinion: Barack Obama should free Alan Gross
Aug. 10, 2011 - Alan Gross y Los Cinco de Miami
Oct. 29, 2013 - United Nations again condemns U.S. embargo of Cuba
May 1, 2013 - Bolivian president Evo Morales expels "subversive" USAID
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