Cuba: did USAID KO deal for Gross release?

US citizen Alan Gross, serving a 15-year prison term in Cuba for his work there as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), held a liquids-only hunger strike from April 3 to 11 to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and US governments. According to Scott Gilbert, Gross' Washington DC-based lawyer, the prisoner started his hunger strike after he learned of an April 3 Associated Press report on ZunZuneo, the "Cuban Twitter" service that USAID launched after his arrest in December 2009. Gross was charged with seeking to subvert the Cuban government by supplying dissidents with Internet technology, and ZunZuneo had the potential to damage his legal case.

A statement released by a public relations firm hired by Gross's family said he had called off the fast at the request of his 91-year-old mother but that he planned to continue protesting. "There will be no cause for further intense protest when both governments show more concern for human beings and less malice and derision toward each other," Gross added, according to the statement. (Miami Herald, April 13)

Actions by USAID officials and contractors may in fact have directly sabotaged efforts to arrange an early release for Gross, an April 9 article by Newsweek reporter Jeff Stein suggested, citing Fulton Armstrong, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Council (NSC) Latin America specialist who worked as an aide to then-senator John Kerry (D-MA) in 2010. According to Armstrong, the Cuban government was willing to consider freeing Gross if the US rolled back some of its "regime change" programs in Cuba. Armstrong said he and an aide to then-representative Howard Berman (D-CA) got an agreement from top USAID and State Department officials for the rollback.

Cuban officials "responded very positively and said that the cleanup—which they understood would be done in phases—would certainly help them make the case for expedited procedures for Gross's release," Armstrong told Newsweek. But some USAID officials refused to go along with the plan. "They reassured their contractors and grantees that, despite rumors of change, business would continue as usual—information that would surely reach Cuban ears—and they later leaked to the press that, in fact, program funding remained unchanged and the reforms were not being implemented," Armstrong said. "At that point, the discussions about program reforms to gain Gross's release ended." (Newsweek, April 9)

Another article by Jeff Stein raises questions about the quality of USAID's Cuba contacts and contractors. One of Gross's contacts was José Manuel Collera Vento, the grand master of the Grand Lodge of Cuba's Freemasons; on April 1, 2011, the Cuban government revealed that Collera Vento was a Cuban agent. One of USAID's contractors for Cuban operations was DC-based public relations entrepreneur Akram Elias, who worked with both Gross and Collera Vento. Elias has contracts with 18 US government agencies, according to his Capital Communications Group website, but his business interests aren't limited to the US. In November 2010 he flew to Damascus to offer his services to the Syrian government; he proposed to work for $22,000 a month at improving Syria's image in Washington and possibly ending sanctions the US had imposed. (Newsweek, April 7)

Daniel Ramos, who heads operations for Cuba's state-owned telecommunications company, Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA (Etecsa), in effect admitted at an April 9 press conference in Havana that Cubans' limited access to the internet has contributed to the success of operations like ZunZuneo. "[One] of our desires and our intentions this year is to succeed in bringing the internet to the population," he said. (Radio Rebelde Cuba, April 9; La Jornada, Mexico, April 10, from AP, Reuters, Prensa Latina, Xinhua)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 13.