Our Man in Havana

John Perry

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.