The State Department drew criticism in May for its continued claim that there was nothing unusual about the work that American subcontractor Alan Gross was carrying out in Cuba.
U.S. government officials – along with the Gross family and their supporters – have largely stuck to their story – that Gross was merely helping Cuban Jews connect to the Internet.
The Associated Press in February reported that it wasn’t quite that simple. The AP said Gross smuggled into Cuba laptops, networking equipment and other electronic gear, including a specialized mobile phone chip that the CIA and the U.S. military sometimes use to hide phone signals.
The AP’s Desmond Butler quoted Gross’s own trip reports, in which he stated he knew he was carrying out risky and dangerous work.
Gross contradicted that statement in a May 4 phone interview with Wolf Blitzer, according to this CNN transcript:
BLITZER: When you went to Cuba, Alan, did you know that this was a risky business?
GROSS: Absolutely not. You know, this — you know, this is a place that tries to attract tourists. And my understanding was if there was any problem with — with the things that I was bringing here — which, by the way, anyone could buy in any Best Buy or Radio Shack or on Amazon.com — that if there was any problem at the airport that I would just leave the equipment at the airport and take it back with me when I left.
BLITZER: And that was two…
GROSS: — they — they can’t (INAUDIBLE)…
BLITZER: — that was two-and-a-half years ago.
GROSS: I’ve never been in trouble anyway in the world. I’ve worked all over the world. I’ve never been in any trouble. I can’t even remember the last time I got a speeding ticket. And — and for this to happen to me at this age is incredible. It’s just incredible.
Cuban officials and others faulted Blitzer and other journalists for not questioning Gross more carefully. Josefina Vidal, head of North American Affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, told Blitzer:
You know, Mr Gross was not working in Cuba as a volunteer, aid worker. He was detained in Cuba because of conducting a well-financed program by the US Goverment aimed at provoking changes in Cuba, attempting against Cuba´s constitutional order. So, Mr. Gross, when he was detained he was a professional under the contract by the US Government trying to implement this program financed by some US agencies.
What evidences do you have that he was doing that?
He was convicted for violating Cuban laws, attempting agaisnt Cuba´s constitutional order, it´s not just a crime in Cuba, it´s also a crime in the United States and in many other countries. And this is the reason why he was convicted, for attempting against our independence, against our constitutional order.
State Department Press spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on May 11 demanded that Cuban authorities free Gross. She told reporters:
The continuing imprisonment of Alan Gross is deplorable, it is wrong, and it’s an affront to human decency. And the Cuban Government needs to do the right thing.
This is a matter of a sitting government having locked up an assistance worker on no basis whatsoever. …I mean, our view is he did nothing wrong.
Some critics say Nuland and others are distorting the truth. On May 14, an opinion piece in La Alborada stated:
The mass media, firmly in line with the State Department, continue to put forward a false description of what Alan Gross was doing in Cuba, usually a variant of “he was distributing laptops and standard computer equipment to help the Jewish community access the Internet.” Only the Associated Press has made an effort to investigate the matter, resulting in a report that substantially contradicted the official line.
In a May 23 column in Progreso Weekly, Saul Landau said Gross was not on an innocent mission.
His secrecy was not intended to keep Cuban officials from learning Jewish matzo ball recipes.
…as La Alborada reported, Gross was establishing an infrastructure for an encrypted satellite-communications system to spread unrest in Cuba and permit U.S. supervisors to build democracy.
Why do we have a press if government officials don’t read or refer to it? Even reporters ignore it. Wolf Blitzer either faked ignorance or was uninformed when he interviewed Hilary Clinton and Alan Gross.
Pamina Firchow, associate director of Doctoral Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, said USAID policy in 1991 opposed “unwarranted interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.” In a paper presented in May at the Latin American Studies Association Conference in San Francisco, she wrote:
Although USAID maintains that all of their democracy promotion and development work is transparent, and not classified as well as legal in Cuba, it is clear that in this instance—and in the broader democracy promotion agenda in Cuba—USAID is remaining at best very discreet. This brings to the forefront the question of whether or not USAID should be covert in its democracy promotion work in Cuba, in particular when doing work pertaining to Internet promotion.
Obviously it would be very difficult to carry out any democracy promotion and Internet proliferation work in Cuba without secrecy because it is illegal on the Island. However, in its 1991 Democracy and Governance brief, USAID policy on democracy promotion and its Democracy Initiative is clearly outlined. Specifically, it requires USAID field staff and regional bureaus to ensure that all USAID activities conform to the requirements of law and “are demonstrably above accusations of inappropriate and unwarranted interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states” (USAID, 1991). In addition it states that it is essential that USAID support for democratic systems be transparent to governments and the general public. This is necessary for USAID to be able to maintain legitimacy to carry out its development agenda.