« | Home | »

Our Man in Havana


Alan Gross, a 62-year-old US citizen, has been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009. He fell foul of the authorities while working for USAID, liaising with Cuba’s small Jewish community. The Washington Post earlier this month demanded his release, saying that ‘Cuba’s accusations stem from Mr Gross’s humanitarian work’. When he was convicted for ‘acts to undermine the integrity and independence’ of Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in jail, Hillary Clinton said that ‘he did not commit any crime’ but was ‘assisting the small Jewish community in Havana that feels very cut off from the world’ by improving their internet connection.

The US government seems to have made only limited attempts to secure Gross’s release. Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, went to Cuba in September with the State Department’s backing, but returned empty-handed. One reason may have been that he had so little to offer the Cubans. He apparently proposed that in return for Gross’s release, the one member of the ‘Miami Five’ to have been released from prison in the US, René González, be allowed to return to Cuba instead of spending two years on probation in Miami. His other offer was to start the process for Cuba to be taken off the US list of ‘states sponsoring terrorism’.

It suits the US government to portray Gross as an innocent aid worker who over-stepped the mark in an authoritarian state. But USAID is known throughout Latin America as a front organisation for the State Department’s political agenda. Part of its work is genuine aid, but much of its so-called democracy building is aimed at undermining governments that the US regards as wayward or undesirable.

According to Just the Facts, the US government has spent more than $200 million in the last 15 years on its democracy programmes in Cuba, most directed through USAID. USAID had a $6 million contract with Development Alternatives Inc for ‘democracy building’. DAI in turn hired Gross to do, in their words, ‘nothing more than help peaceful people gain access to the internet’. According to the Miami Herald, ‘Gross received more than a half million dollars through his company, despite the fact he spoke little Spanish and had no history of working in Cuba’.

The story might have remained a footnote to the unfortunate history of US-Cuba relations, in which Gross is either, depending on which side you’re on, an innocent victim of a harsh police state or a subversive agent of an imperialist enemy with a long track-record of intervening in Cuba’s affairs. But there has been an extraordinary intervention from a surprising source.

Fulton Armstrong worked for the National Security Council and has since advised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. No left-wing Cuba-sympathiser then, in the famously anti-Castro Miami Herald last month he poured scorn on the USAID programmes and the use of a ‘covert operator’ such as Gross. He says that the programmes are an enormous waste of money, employing people who are not fully briefed and don’t understand the country. Furthermore, Washington evidently knows what its operators may not, that the Cuban government has thoroughly penetrated the programmes and knows exactly what people like Gross are doing.

Fixes have been repeatedly proposed to increase efficiencies and steer funds to help the Cuban people improve their lives, such as by taking advantage of the incipient economic adjustments that Raúl Castro has begun – to help people help themselves, not just organize and mobilize them for protests. USAID’s firm reaction has been that the programs are not to help Cubans live better lives today but rather help them demand a better future tomorrow. Regime change.

Of course there are still political prisoners in Cuba. Many have been released in various amnesties, but Wilman Villar Mendoza’s death this month following a hunger strike, after only a few weeks in prison, shows, as the Americas director of Human Rights Watch puts it, ‘how the Cuban government punishes dissent. Arbitrary arrests, sham trials, inhumane imprisonment, and harassment of dissidents’ families – these are the tactics used to silence critics.’

HRW has also collated evidence of human rights abuses on another part of the island: 779 people have been imprisoned at Guantánamo since 11 September 2001, of whom only six have been ‘tried’ by military courts. Eight prisoners have died in custody, six by suspected suicide.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • pgillott on Wishful Thinking about Climate Change: Phrases like “monumental triumph” and (particularly) “renaissance for humankind” are overdoing it, but to suggest that there is no chance of ...
    • UncleShoutingSmut on Goodbye, Circumflex: Unfortunately this post is likely to leave readers with a very partial idea of what is going on. Firstly, there is no "edict": all that has happened i...
    • martyn94 on The Price of Everything: If it's a joke at anyone's expense, it's surely at the expense of any super-rich who take it seriously. I used to skim it occasionally as a diversion ...
    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement