Supporters and foes of USAID’s Cuba programs continued in January debating the efficiency of the agency’s democracy-promotion efforts.
On Jan. 16, CaféFuerte published a sentencing document that has new details of Cuba’s case against American subcontractor Alan Gross. (Download 15 MB document here).
The document shows that Cuban spies began tracking Gross in mid-2004 when he traveled to Cuba to deliver a video camera and medicine to José Manuel Collera Vento, former head of the Freemasons fraternal organization in Cuba.
Gross delivered the package on behalf of Marc Wachtenheim, then director of the Cuba Development Initiative at the Pan American Development Foundation, or PADF, which receives funds from USAID.
Wachtenheim told the Herald he couldn’t talk about his Cuba work, but told El Nuevo Herald in an email:
Giving someone a laptop is not a crime anywhere in the civilized world — only punished in countries such as North Korea, Iran and Cuba.
Mark Feierstein saw fit to tweet that on Jan. 26. He is USAID’s assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Feierstein – along with the State Department’s Michael Posner – defended the democracy-promotion programs in Cuba in a letter published Jan. 4 in the Miami Herald. They said the programs were “comparable to international efforts in support of democracy elsewhere.”
The two wrote the Herald in response to a letter published Dec. 25 in which former Senate staffer Fulton Armstrong called Cuba programs deeply flawed.
Anya Landau French, director of the New America Foundation’s U.S. – Cuba Policy Initiative and the editor of The Havana Note, agreed with Armstrong and criticized Feierstein and Posner for their reply. In a Jan. 18 post called “Eyes Wide Shut, USAID, State Double Down on Cuba Programs,” she wrote:
…Their response is another disappointing indication that this administration remains inexplicably committed to a policy of willful ignorance when it comes to Cuba.
Helping Alan Gross to understand Cuban law before he traveled to the island would have better served him. Instead, Feierstein and Posner disingenuously suggest that we can choose not to accept Cuban law. In what other foreign country may a private American citizen flout local national security laws and expect to go free because the United States government thinks it’s an unfair law? Surely Feierstein and Posner can’t be unaware of this advise offered to any traveler on the State Department website: “While in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws.” Or, of the warning USAID gave to grant applicants in 2008 that Cuba might harshly sanction Cubans or foreigners carrying out activities under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act.
It’s one thing for U.S. officials, surrounded by unsatisfiable critics on all sides, to quietly grumble about a former colleague’s tough and public critique of a program that doesn’t work but can’t be dumped. But it’s intellectually dishonest – and diplomatically counterproductive to achieving Gross’s release – to come strutting out with a defense that so willfully denies reality.
Stephen Wilkinson, a Cuba scholar in London, criticized the U.S. government’s approach in Cuba. In a Jan. 11 post, he wrote:
For those who have known about these operations for some time, Armstrong’s forthright words are a breath of fresh air, but he fails to mention another stark fact that is even more reason for the U.S. to stop wasting taxpayers’ money: Gross was easily caught.
The truth is that the network of dissidents that is supplied and financed by these operations is deeply infiltrated by Cuban double agents. The Cuban government knows exactly who are behind the projects. Whether or not their agents are ‘duped’ or knowing participants, the likelihood is that there will be more cases such as that of Alan Gross, unless the U.S. changes tack.
On Jan. 14, Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the non-profit Lexington Institute, also faulted USAID’s tactics. He wrote:
It doesn’t matter what you or I or Alan Gross or Feierstein or Posner think of Cuban law or USAID’s way of operating. What matters is that USAID has chosen a style of operation in that environment that puts its operatives in predictable danger, and when things go sour, its response is to whine in public and defend the program rather than help get the guy out. Again, if your kids want to become covert operatives, send them to the CIA, not to this crew.
The American’s release from jail would be a “major step” toward improved U.S.-Cuba relations, but right now Gross is the “fly in the ointment,” French journalist Salim Lamrani.
In a Jan. 17 article, Lamrani wrote:
Clearly, Alan Gross violated the law. Of that there can be no doubt. On the other hand, he seems to have done little harm. His continued incarceration results in no important benefits to the U.S. His release, on the other hand, could be a major step toward improved U.S.-Cuban relations, especially if in the process he were prepared to apologize for his actions.
Lamrani contends that American officials should consider releasing Cuban agents jailed in the U.S. in exchange for Gross’s freedom.
The sentencing document said Gross supplied Cubans with three laptops, three satellite phones and 13 Blackberry phones.
The jailed man’s lawyer told the Miami Herald that the document shows he was not subverting the Cuban government. Lawyer Peter J. Kahn said the document
is further confirmation of what we have said all along — the Cuban authorities cannot point to any action … intended to subvert their government.
All this document evidences is that it was the USAID program that was on trial in Cuba.
Postscript: For a detailed analysis of the Gross sentencing document, see Peter’s follow-up Feb. 2 article entitled, “The Alan Gross “sentencia” summarized.”
In brief, the Cuban court held that Gross was working on a project that he designed, that he described in his own papers as focused on political objectives and contributing to the Bush Administration’s regime change objectives; that he imported and installed three satellite Internet/Wifi systems for Cuba’s Jewish community, never representing himself as working for a U.S. government program; that those communications systems were chosen because they do not operate on the Cuban communications network; that he traveled to Cuba five times in one year, carrying some equipment himself and enlisting unwitting Americans who were traveling to Cuba for religious exchanges to carry the rest; that he was going to be assigned to repair a satellite communications system that another USAID grantee had installed; and that he had a discussion – at Cuba’s Hotel Nacional, of all places – about installing satellite communications systems for Cuba’s Masonic Lodges.
If just half of that is true, the real question becomes: Is there a more surefire scheme for sending an American into Cuba to get arrested?