Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    A simmering cyberwar with Cuba

    A simmering cyberwar with Cuba

    Cuba is worried the US will use the to foment uprising on the
    By Nick Miroff
    Published: February 14, 2011 06:26 ET in The Americas Cuba internet

    , Cuba — If the internet is the new battlefield in the long,
    simmering standoff between Cuba and the , then jailed
    American contractor is the conflict's first POW.

    The basic facts of his case are not in dispute. , 61, was
    in December 2009 and has been held at a high-security Cuban ever
    since. Posing as a , he came to Cuba to set up laptop-sized
    satellites that would deliver unrestricted internet access as part of a
    broader U.S. government program to spur political change to Havana's
    one-party rule.

    Though Cuba is the least-wired country in the Americas, it does not
    allow foreign governments — particularly the United States — to install
    unlicensed communication equipment on the island. Prosecutors said this
    month they will charge Gross with "Actions Against the Independence and
    Territorial Integrity of the State," and seek a 20-year prison sentence.

    A trial date has not been set, but the Gross case, along with several
    other web-related developments this month, has offered the best insight
    yet into the government's evolving views of the internet, as
    Cuban authorities cautiously attempt to introduce modern technology
    while pushing back against U.S. efforts to wield it against them.

    As the Gross charges were announced, a video of a purported Cuban
    intelligence briefing began surfacing on anti-government blogs and
    websites, laying out Gross's alleged crimes as well as Cuba's strategy
    to counter American plans. Cuban officials have not disputed the video's
    authenticity, and several analysts have even suggested the 53-minute
    briefing may have been leaked deliberately.

    In it, a young Cuban intelligence official depicts Gross as "a
    mercenary," tasked with carrying out a U.S. plot to establish
    unsupervised communication networks on the island that could help foment
    and facilitate an uprising.

    "It's just like the (1961) Bay of Pigs invasion," the intelligence
    official claims, "but this guy came with other arms. He didn't come on a
    boat and didn't disembark with a gun in his hand, but it's the same story."

    The idea, "is to create a technology platform outside the control of
    Cuban authorities that would permit in some way the free flow of
    information between Cuban citizens — not any Cuban citizen, but those
    selected by them, opponents, bloggers, those they have chosen — and
    between those citizens and the world," he alleges, drawing comparisons
    to the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2009 Green Revolution
    in Iran (the video was allegedly filmed last June, before the popular
    revolt in Egypt).

    "It's all part of a strategy," he continues, "if I put the technology
    platform [in front of you], the people who can generate the conflict are
    the same ones who are going to report this very conflict abroad." And if
    the U.S. furnishes those government opponents with independent internet
    access, the official explains, Cuban authorities would not be able to
    shut them down.

    Since Gross's arrest, U.S. officials have characterized him as a kindly
    development worker who was simply trying to provide Cuba's small Jewish
    community with better internet access. They've urged Gross's immediate
    release, warning that a long prison sentence will ice up the Obama
    administration's incipient efforts at improved relations.

    "This is a matter of grave importance to us," said Gloria Berbena, a
    spokesperson for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. "We have used
    every available diplomatic channel to call for his release on
    humanitarian grounds."

    "He should be home with his family now," she said.

    Gross is likely to plead guilty at his trial, then receive a pardon from
    the Cuban government, according to Western diplomats cited by
    international news organizations on the island. But others believe
    Havana may not give up Gross so easily.

    Still, the Cuban government's case against Gross isn't the only element
    of the video that has caused a stir. The segment also shows the young
    Cuban official encouraging his colleagues to embrace 21st-century
    technology and set aside their fears of social media sites. "Technology
    by itself is not a threat," he says. "The threat is what someone who is
    behind the technology can do."

    "They have their bloggers and we have our bloggers," he continues. "We
    will fight to see who is stronger."

    That fight is likely to intensify later this year. Cuba has long blamed
    its web restrictions and abysmal connection speeds on the low-bandwidth
    satellites links it relies upon, claiming that American trade sanctions
    have deliberately isolated it from the rest of the world. But a
    much-anticipated undersea fiber optic cable plugging the island into
    was finally put into place Feb. 9, and it will increase Cuba's
    bandwidth by a factor of 3,000 when it becomes operational this summer.

    Cuban officials have sought to temper expectations, saying that priority
    will be given to schools, research centers and other government
    institutions — not private home use — while insisting that those
    restrictions aren't political.

    Cuba's Deputy Minister of Information Jorge Luis Perdomo insisted at a
    technology conference that "there is no political obstacle" to web
    access in Cuba, just as the $70 million cable was being completed.

    As if to prove the point, the government stopped blocking access to the
    site of opposition Yoani Sanchez the next day.

    However, other anti-Castro sites remain inaccessible from the island.


    * Cuba
    * Technology