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Our man in Havana

6 February 2011

Alan Gross, the U.S.”aid contractor” facing 20 years in a Cuban prison for spying probably was engaging in some kind of espionage.  Gross, 61, was supposedly working for USAID on humanitarian projects, specifically assisting Jewish welfare groups.

However, Tracy Eaton (Along The Malecón), wrote (3 December 2010):

I met with a leader of Cuba’s Jewish community over the summers and she knew nothing of Gross.

That in itself means nothing, as Eaton posted on 25 October 2010:

One U.S. government source told me that Interests Section staffers did not know much about the activities of USAID contractors in Cuba and that there was little communication or coordination between the Interests Section and USAID. The source added that communication improved after the Gross arrest, but Interests Section employees were handicapped by travel restrictions within Cuba.

USAID has a long history of working as a front for covert operations in Latin America, alluded to by Eaton in his 3 December 2010 post:

The agency (USAID, or AID) has spent at least $140 million on pro-democracy programs in Cuba since 1996. AID says it has used the money to help dissidents, political prisoners and their families, to strengthen civil society organizations, and to improve the flow of information to and from the island.

“There are many groups and individuals inside and outside Cuba who believe the funds are useful in supporting their ability to carry out their activities and promote fundamental freedoms…” AID said in response to a request for comment for this story.

Some critics question the legality of AID programs in Cuba.

“Sadly, I believe Alan Gross may stay in jail a long time, as long as these programs continue,” said Tony Martinez, editor of the United States Cuba Policy & Business Blog. “I see the key to unlocking his freedom lies in our ending these covert and subversive programs.”

If this was a USAID project for the assistance of the Jewish community, neither Jewish leaders nor the U.S. Interests Section seems to have been informed, and the Cuban government (and even Cuban dissidents) tend to distrust the agency.  As to what Gross was bringing into Cuba, Eaton wrote (26 November 2010):

Several sources have said that Alan Gross, the American who has been held in jail in Cuba since December 2009, brought satellite communication gear to the island. The sources have said he was carrying equipment that can be used to set up a Broadband Global Area Network, or BGAN for short.

BGAN is a global satellite Internet network. You can use it to establish a broadband Internet from anywhere in the world. You can also make phone calls, send e-mail messages and set up a WiFi network. And the equipment fits in a backpack.

…  I used a similar system while covering the fighting in Afhganistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and it really wasn’t too complicated to operate.

BGAN equipment is relatively inexpensive. I searched on eBay and found one BGAN terminal on sale for $1,150.

The connection time can be expensive. Tempest Telecom, for instance, charges about $1 per minute for phone calls, $10 per megabyte transferred via broadband, plus a monthly fee of about $40. I think those rates are probably typical. The company also offers an unlimited usage plan. Price: $2,500 per month.

That’s about 100 times the average salary in Cuba, so I presume Uncle Sam would foot the bill for any BGAN connections.

(my emphasis)

Those aren’t vacuum cleaners, and the tale does involve a father concerned about his daughter¿s future, but this is no comic tale.  Alan Gross may be as sympathetic — and maybe even as naïve as Jim Wormold — Eaton has, overall, expressed sympathy for Alan Gross, writing at length on Gross’ daughter (who has been severely ill) and suggesting the “guest of the Cubans” is being used as a political pawn.  He may indeed be a good family man, and may have been honestly committed to assisting Jewish charities in Cuba.  None of which prevents him from also being involved in espionage.

Or, like Wormold, his motives may be misunderstood:

While the Alan Gross incident (which has been more or less ignored in the U.S. press ) will likely  complicate moves to improve U.S.-Cuban relations — and I fully expect Gross will be found guilty, and the results are unfortunately more likely to be in the realm of tragedy than comedy.

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