Trial against US contractor starts in Cuba
Posted on Friday, 03.04.11
Trial against US contractor starts in Cuba
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA — 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
Alan Gross 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 arrested 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
tourist 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
embargo 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,"
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 blog 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."