Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Trial against US contractor starts in Cuba

    Posted on Friday, 03.04.11

    Trial against US contractor starts in Cuba
    Associated Press

    — A U.S. government contractor went on trial in Cuba on Friday
    in a case sure to have a profound impact on relations between the Cold
    War enemies.

    Alan faces a possible 20-year sentence for "acts against the
    integrity and independence" of Cuba. The 61-year-old Maryland native was
    working for the Bethesda-based Development Associates International on a
    USAID-program that promotes democracy when he was in December 2009.

    His family, and U.S. and company officials, say he was bringing
    communications equipment to Cuba's 1,500-strong Jewish community. Cuban
    Jewish groups deny having anything to do with him, and there was
    speculation some Cuban Jewish leaders would testify against him.

    Gross's wife, Judy, and lawyer Peter J. Kahn arrived by foot at the
    courthouse in a converted residential mansion in Havana's
    once-prosperous 10 de Octubre neighborhood, and were later seen sipping
    water in the court garden during a midday recess. American consular
    officials were also at the court as observers. They did not speak to
    reporters, who were kept some distance away across a narrow street.

    The trial – closed to the media – is expected to be over in a day or
    two, with a verdict announced immediately thereafter. Sentencing, should
    Gross be convicted, would likely come about two weeks later.

    In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rhodium Clinton said the U.S.
    government is "deeply concerned" about Gross's fate.

    "He has been unjustly jailed for far too long," she said. "We call on
    the government of Cuba to release him and unconditionally allow him to
    leave Cuba and return to his family, to bring an end to his long ordeal."

    The proceedings offer Cuba a chance to highlight Washington-backed
    democracy-building efforts like the one Gross was working on, which
    Havana says are designed to topple the government.

    Washington spends more than $40 million a year on the programs, with
    USAID controlling most of that and doling out the work to subcontractors.

    Development Associates International, or DAI, was awarded a $4.5 million
    contract for the program in which Gross was involved, and Gross
    reportedly was paid more than a half-million dollars himself, despite
    the fact he spoke little Spanish and had no history working in Cuba.
    Gross traveled to the island several times over a short period on a
    visa, apparently raising Cuban suspicions.

    The programs have also been criticized repeatedly in congressional
    reports as being wasteful and ineffective. In March 2010, Sen. John
    Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Democratic Rep. Howard Berman,
    of California – both longtime critics of Washington's 48-year trade
    on Cuba – temporarily held up new funding in the wake of Gross'
    arrest. The money has begun flowing again, though U.S. officials say DAI
    is no longer part of the program.

    A senior congressional aide with knowledge of the USAID programs told
    The Associated Press the Cuba effort – which was ramped up under the
    Bush Administration with the goal of promoting "regime change" on the
    island – was on autopilot by the time President Barack Obama took office.

    "Neither the State Department nor USAID knew who all of these people
    were or what they were doing in the name of the US government and with
    US taxpayer money," he said, adding that oversight was insufficient to
    tell whether the programs were effective.

    He said the contractors themselves designed and evaluated the programs
    and determined whether they were doing a good job.

    "They had the mandate, the money, and political advocates in Congress,"
    he said.

    The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not
    authorized to discuss the programs with the media, said that "to this
    day" it is not clear who Gross was working with in Cuba.

    Cuban authorities have not spoken publicly about their case against
    Gross. But a video that surfaced days before the charges were announced
    indicates prosecutors will likely argue that the USAID programs amount
    to an attack on the island's sovereignty.

    Judy Gross has appealed to Cuba to release her husband on humanitarian
    grounds, noting that the couple's 26-year-old daughter Shira is
    suffering from cancer and that Gross's elderly mother is also very ill.

    On a she started to track her cancer treatment, Shira Gross asks
    followers to keep her father in their thoughts.

    "G-d listens to our prayers, so please pray for his release," she wrote
    in an entry posted Thursday.

    Many observers do see a way forward that would get Gross back to his
    family, and avoid a standoff between Havana and Washington.

    As recently as January, a senior U.S. State Department official said she
    had been given signals by the Cuban government that Gross would be sent
    home soon following a trial. American officials were taken aback when –
    a few weeks later – prosecutors said they were seeking a 20-year jail term.

    Phil Peters, a longtime Cuba expert who is vice president of the
    Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said he saw Cuba freeing
    Gross soon, despite the fact prosecutors are seeking such a stiff sentence.

    "The odds are the guy is going to get convicted, that's not hard to
    predict," he said. "But I don't believe that the Cuban government has an
    interest in holding him in jail for the long term."