Today, Alan Gross went on trial in Havana, another chapter in his personal ordeal that began with his arrest on December 3, 2009. It took Cuba’s government more than a year to charge him, and in the months that intervened, Mr. Gross’s mother and daughter were both diagnosed with cancer. His arrest, detention, and trial may be a compelling political issue dividing Cuba and the United States. For the Gross family, however, his plight is a humanitarian crisis.
Leading up to the trial, Jewish leaders appealed to President Castro to release Gross and send him home to his family on humanitarian grounds. The Rev. Jesse Jackson similarly made a statement, additionally offering to travel to Cuba to aid in negotiations.
The foreign press is not allowed inside the courtroom where Gross’s trial is taking place, and our deadline approached before news reached the U.S. about the first day of the trial. So we begin the news this week with some thoughts about Mr. Gross’s plight.
Earlier this week, Secretary of State Clinton said before Congress that the United States is “losing” the information war, and she blamed the U.S. media, the distortion of popular culture, and declining budgets for U.S.-sponsored information broadcasts, as factors leading to the U.S. being unable to get out its message.
This is what every administration – Republican and Democrat – says when it feels like it is losing its ability to control events. The problem we see, however, is different. The problem is not perceptions but reality, the truth.
From the time he was arrested more than a year ago, the administration has explained Gross’s activities in Cuba by saying he was providing Internet access to Jewish groups which they said is not (or perhaps they meant shouldn’t be) a crime.
This may be the U.S. government’s message, but the facts appear to be quite different.
Mr. Gross, who entered Cuba on numerous occasions saying he was a “tourist,” distributed satellite equipment under a U.S. program, as Reuters explained, that is “outlawed and considered subversive” by Cuba’s government. These activities have been illegal in Cuba since the late 1990s, but U.S. policy makers in the Executive Branch and Congress have continued to fund them nonetheless. On the eve of Mr. Gross’s trial, President Obama asked for an increase in the budget for these so-called “democracy promotion” (or “regime change”) programs.
Covert efforts to provide Cubans with Internet access may appear to be well-motivated, but they are, in fact, expensive, ineffective, counter-productive, provocative, and superfluous.
Mr. Gross – apparently supported by an infrastructure operated by other U.S.-funded contractors in Central America and elsewhere – was setting up high-tech, high-cost satellite equipment, including BGAN terminals which are laptop-sized devices used as a direct link to the Internet through satellite connections, Progreso Semanal reports. We are advised, however, that these connections supported a minimal number of Internet users, used by Cuban citizens who were not primarily drawn from the island’s Jewish community, selected on the basis of other criteria. Not only did the connections benefit a small number of people, but using satellite access for this purpose costs a tremendous amount of money for data charges.
Mr. Gross, apparently, did not disclose to the Cuban beneficiaries of his activities the source of his funding, which put them at legal risk in Cuba. Our government’s constant (and we believe cynical) invocation of the island’s Jewish community, as benefitting from his work, painted them with the brush of U.S. support – a mistake that harms their credibility and independence if it were true; an even worse offense, if it is “messaging” rather than fact, which appears to be the case.
Why pursue a program that didn’t really work but carried so much risk? The motivation of some who support this program, perhaps, was not to provide access but to provoke Cuba’s government, which doesn’t take it lightly when a foreign power trying to overthrow its system pays contractors to bring in this kind of equipment.
In fact, Mr. Gross’s arrest has been a big problem for U.S.-Cuba relations. If he is hit with a twenty-year sentence, and receives no consideration from Cuba’s government for his humanitarian concerns, the long-expected, long-overdue thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations will likely return to a deep freeze. Nothing would make the regime-change crowd in the U.S. happier.
All of this is discouraging, because it is fundamentally needless. We believe in expanding access to information, and there are legal ways to bring laptops and new ideas into Cuba – ways that aren’t costly, that are effective, that are not provocative, and that directly benefit average Cubans. This can be done now, through the front door, and could be expanded by legalizing more travel and contact between U.S. citizens and Cubans.
Were this to happen, there would be no “message misfires,” meaning, the U.S. government could say, forthrightly, openly, and honestly, that it supported helping Cubans gain greater access to information, and the reality and the messaging would be in perfect alignment. More importantly, there would be no further need for covert programs that put real people and real families – in Cuba and the U.S. – at such risk.
Mr. Gross’s trial is not expected to last more than a few days. If he is convicted, his sentencing and an appeals process would take longer still. Our thoughts are with him and his family.
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