The strange case of Alan Gross…

June 2011 article via

Alan Gross … was paid half a million dollars by the State Department’s Agency for International Development (USAID) to undertake a democracy promotion mission in Cuba. … A State Department spokesman denounced the sentence and described Gross as someone dedicated to helping “the Cuban people connect with the rest of the world.” Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), the USAID prime contractor that actually employed Gross, complained that he had only been engaged in giving “peaceful people access to the Internet.” …
Gross, in his defense, claimed that he had been deceived by his employer DAI and had become a pawn caught in the middle of the perennially bad relationship between Washington and Havana. But how legitimate is his argument? Gross was given a great deal of money to carry out his task by DAI, which had him on their books as an “independent business and economic development consultant” as part of an $8.6 million contract from USAID. He falsified his visa application by indicating that he was a “tourist” when he was, in fact, being paid to carry out an assignment on behalf of the United States government. Signs at the Havana airport clearly indicate that the introduction of satellite phones into the country is illegal. As these phones can bypass local telephone systems, the Cubans believe, probably correctly, that they are frequently used to support espionage operations. They are also expensive, starting at $2,000 per unit. And, as it would have been difficult to smuggle the phones into the country avoiding Cuban customs inspection, it is believed that the devices themselves likely were obtained directly from the United States Cuban Interests Section in Havana, the local equivalent of a U.S. embassy. Gross also deceived his target audience. Few Cuban Jews were aware of his visits, but several who met him testified in court that they were angry because he in no way indicated that they were to be beneficiaries of a U.S. government program, something that they knew to be illegal and would have avoided.

Alan Gross was part of an ongoing American government effort to destabilize Cuba, a program which began at $2 million in the 1990s and surged to an estimated $45 million in 2008 in the last year of the administration of President George W. Bush. Though run by USAID, the program has been described as “secretive,” and the end use of the project money was frequently concealed by giving it to Cuban-American organizations for further distribution to dissidents inside Cuba. Along the way, the “Cuban Democracy” project was suspended on several occasions by Congress in response to the watchdog General Accountability Office’s allegations of widespread fraud and malfeasance. Nevertheless, in the current $54 billion State Department budget for 2011 there remains an allocation of $20 million to promote “self-determined democracy in Cuba.” And much of the money will undoubtedly go to supporting Internet-savvy dissidents. A WikiLeaks cable originating in the U.S. Interests Section assessed local Cuban dissident groups as ineffectual, but promoted the “social impact” of bloggers, stressing the need to “open up Cuba to the information age” to encourage young Cubans to seek “greater freedom and opportunity.”

Cuban government allegations that Gross was working for an unnamed intelligence organization are inaccurate, but they also miss the point, which is that organizations like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) now do somewhat openly what the Central Intelligence Agency used to do clandestinely during the 1950s and 1960s. They are directed to promote democracy and frequently operate untrammeled by official policy constraints. Much of the turmoil that led to the wave of pastel revolutions in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism was engineered by USAID and NED exploiting telecommunication technologies, leading some to describe the unrest as “twitter revolutions.” Many countries, including Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak, consequently banned NED activity, leading to the establishment of training centers outside Egypt to educate visiting Egyptians in “democracy promotion.” Gross was clearly part of the broader effort to enable dissidents to communicate with each other. …

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