Hapless in Havana

A contractor for USAID is still in jail in Cuba. Why was he there in the first place -- and what can Washington do to bring him back?

Alan P. Gross of Maryland recently had the rare experience of being thrown in jail for doing his job.

On Dec. 4, Cuban authorities arrested the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor at Havana's José Martí International Airport. President Raúl Castro has said that Gross was providing "sophisticated satellite communications equipment" to groups working for "the enemy" -- that is, the Americans. Cuban prosecutors have yet to file formal charges, but he could be accused of entering the country on a tourist visa while actually working for a foreign government to foment regime change. Gross remains in a maximum-security prison in Havana, and U.S. diplomats are working assiduously for his release.

The case is the latest bone of contention between the United States and Cuba. And it is pushing President Barack Obama's administration to make a decision it neglected in its first year: whether to continue former President George W. Bush's policies toward Cuba, or forge its own ones.

Gross worked for Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a USAID contractor. According to his employer, at the time of his arrest Gross was distributing "equipment such as cell phones and laptops" to a "religious and cultural group recognized by the Cuban government," later identified as Cuba's Jewish community. A U.S. official says that Gross was passing out laptop-sized devices with satellite links to the Internet. It was simple "humanitarian assistance," DAI says. And Gross's friends and co-workers have scoffed at the idea that he was a spy. "He's not James Bond; he's a development guy," one friend told Washington Jewish Week.

Unfortunately for Gross, however, the USAID program he worked for is explicitly engineered to oust the Castros. It derives from the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which tried to bring down a weakened Cuba following the fall of the Soviet Union. The law listed conditions for Cuba to meet to achieve democratic legitimacy -- among them that Fidel and Raúl Castro leave the government. Its Section 109 authorizes assistance for "individuals and independent nongovernmental organizations to support democracy-building efforts" -- in other words, USAID's grantees and contractors. In 2004, the Bush administration made USAID's Cuba program part of its effort to "accelerate the demise of Castro's tyranny" and increased its funding dramatically.

It is little wonder, then, that the communists in Havana have seen the USAID program as part of a regime-change strategy. Cuba responded in 1999 with its own Law 88, criminalizing any connection with the USAID program. It provides a prison term of three to eight years for "distribution of financial, material, or other resources that come from the United States government, its agencies, subordinates, representatives, functionaries, or private entities."

This leaves USAID in an unusual position: operating an assistance program in Cuba with the absurd hope that the local government will not notice. Stranger still, the program is overt in the United States -- in 2006, there was an open call for proposals for "high tech communication devices to facilitate communications between activists on the island" -- and attempts to be covert in Cuba.

That might work -- and Gross might be a free man today -- were it not for the fact that Cuba has a world-class intelligence service. At the Havana airport, passengers and baggage are scanned entering Cuba. Carry a laptop, and you can expect to answer a few questions. Carry several, and you can count on being watched. If you visit the U.S. diplomatic mission, Cuban guards see you coming and going. If you go there to pick something up -- the State Department reports that in some months, up to 75 percent of shipments to that mission come from USAID's grantees -- then the mission's 250 Cuban employees, all of whom can be counted on to be informants or employees of Cuba's Interior Ministry, will see that too.

Foreigners who phone or visit dissidents can expect to be observed. Moreover, "dissidents" aren't always who they seem -- indeed, Cuba's Department of State Security (DSS) not only monitors anti-government activists, but also manufactures some. Agents pose as opponents of the regime and infiltrate opposition organizations. When 75 dissidents were jailed after lightning trials in 2003, the DSS happily unmasked 12 of its phony dissidents, publishing interviews and then a book about their undercover exploits.

One, Odilia Collazo, claimed to have suffered an act of violent repression in 1997; the "independent journalist" Nestor Baguer (in fact, an agent of the state) reported Collazo's mistreatment to the world. U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) then denounced the human rights abuse. Another Cuban agent, Manuel David Orrio, organized a seminar for "independent" journalists in 2003 in the stately home of the top U.S. diplomat in Havana at the time, James Cason. Others worked in lower-profile positions where they could observe foreign contacts and aid. In other words, a development contractor like Gross, working in USAID's version of a covert operation, was not likely to make it out of Cuba unseen.

Having played the arrest card that USAID provided him, Raúl Castro has effectively forced the suspension USAID's operations in Cuba. He also seems to be testing Obama's stated desire to "recast" U.S.-Cuba relations. Indeed, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez recently declared that Gross's activities showed that "the U.S. government is not giving up on destroying the Cuban revolution."

Rodríguez is probably reading too much into the intentions of a new administration that has largely left Cuba policy on autopilot. Gross's DAI contract comes from funding awarded during the Bush administration. Obama did end all restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel and remittances, but otherwise the Bush regulations are still on the books, strictly limiting travel and all kinds of contacts between American people and institutions and their Cuban counterparts. The Bush logic was that the USAID program and tight travel restrictions are better than allowing Americans to travel freely -- fewer travelers transfer less hard currency to Cuba, and only the right Americans contact the right Cubans with the right messages.

Gross's arrest and the effective suspension of the USAID program beg the question of whether it was doing any good anyway. Today's Cuba has a crop of young, irreverent bloggers who do not consider themselves dissidents, but nevertheless have found creative ways to circumvent governmental restrictions and criticize the Castros. These bloggers do not want U.S. government aid because they do not want to lend credence to the communist canard that all dissent is of foreign manufacture. The best known of these bloggers, Yoani Sánchez, got started with money she earned as a freelance translator and guide for German tourists.

Plus, the USAID program suffered from several well-publicized cases of misuse of funds and one case of embezzlement. It has also wasted money on dubious initiatives: years of efforts to sway European policies toward Cuba, a $400,000 grant for scholarships that brought only two Cuban students to the United States, $750,000 for a specious study of property claims, and made-in-Miami bumper stickers and slogans that Cuban dissidents didn't touch with a 10-foot pole.

Few would quarrel with one mainstay of the USAID program: its aid to families of political prisoners. But that aid could be provided through a lean government program or by private means, through the same Western Union money transfers that Cuban-Americans use every day to send money to loved ones in Cuba.

Ultimately, Obama would do well to slash or scrap USAID's Cuba program in an act of fiscal prudence. Of course, the mere suggestion of cutting democracy-promotion funding to Cuba has rankled members of Congress (who call it "appeasement"); of course, it would be far better if a long-overdue review were prompted by something other than Gross's arrest. But the current policies play naively and directly into the hands of Cuban state security.

Thus, Obama should not only correct USAID's mistakes, but reassess and revive Cuba policy writ large. To start, he should treat free travel by Americans as a source of greater U.S. influence in Cuba -- rather than a risk to be managed and policed. Many Cuban dissidents and Cuba's Catholic Church have called for an end to U.S. travel restrictions, just as they call on their own government to allow Cubans to travel freely. This would bring "popular diplomacy," the blogger Sánchez writes, and "the intense interaction between people ... would awaken citizen consciousness" and help Cubans to stand up for their own rights.

There remains the question of how to get Alan Gross out of jail. To be sure, the Cuban government arrested him and should release him, knowing that he will not return. But communist authorities are unlikely to be swayed by statements about good American intentions, such as the State Department's argument about helping Cuba get in line with "the global trends that are going to propel the 21st century." Cuba incessantly claims that five of its own agents in U.S. jails were well-intended too -- "anti-terrorists" rather than spies -- and U.S. authorities have roundly ignored that claim for years. The simple truth is that Gross needs a humanitarian gesture, and one hopes that the Cuban leadership will realize that it has made its point, and let him go.

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Did Hitler's Mistress Have A Clue?

A new German biography attempts to show Eva Braun in a new light. But is there anything there to show?

In the last 70 years, historians, military experts, and other scholars have compiled a massive library of research into Nazi Germany. Every angle of the war seems to have been sifted and examined closely, as if by tracking the ballistics of every bullet fired in the war we could finally understand how a nation became so caught up in the hysteria. These days, Germany is taking the full disclosure approach, and so when someone makes a small and relatively insignificant discovery about, for example, Hitler's medical file, it makes the headlines.

But in this vast sea of information, there has been one uncharted region: the life of Hitler's mistress, the woman who died at his side, Eva Braun. Biographer and historian Heike Görtemaker hopes to remedy this with her new book, Eva Braun: Leben mit Hitler (Life with Hitler). Der Spiegel is praising it as the first biography to take a "a strictly academic approach" to Braun, and the first book to look past the legend and "[take] the character at the center of [the] book seriously." While Eva Braun is getting high-profile reviews in Germany, however, its value as an "academic" look at Nazi Germany's first mistress is pretty dubious. Some full disclosure leads to insight into past atrocities. With Eva Braun, however, you get to hear about her squabbles with Adolf over his vegetarian diet and the fact that they once had sex on a couch.

The general consensus on Braun, which Görtemaker's book sets out to dismantle, has always been that she was an empty-headed flibbertigibbet. In the German film Der Untergang (released in the United States as Downfall), an intimate portrait of Hitler and his inner circle in their bunker in the last days of the war, Braun flits by insubstantially. She twirls around the ballroom during a party with a vapid smile painted on her face in thick red lipstick, urging the men and women to dance as Allied bombs fall above their heads. In German history class, Braun is a victim, a silly girl who was swept along in history due to her unfortunate taste in men. Hitler's biographers, such as Joachim C. Fest who wrote the best-selling Hitler: Eine Biographie, believed that with either willful ignorance or stupidity, Braun closed her eyes and ears to the war raging around her. Fest describes her as "a simple, moderately attractive girl with unpretentious dreams and thoughts that were dominated by love, fashion, movies, and gossip." He also recounts an anecdote widely retold in books about Hitler and Braun: Hitler told his friend Albert Speer that the best thing an intelligent man could do would be to take "a primitive and stupid woman" as his lover. He said this while Braun sat devotedly at his side, uncomplaining.

The only traces of Braun's inner life come from parts of a diary that was 10 years old at her death and whose authenticity is still under debate, plus a scattering of letters. Previous biographies of Braun, such as those by Nerin E. Gun and Angela Lambert, have suffered from this lack of primary sources of information and have been cast aside as being full of gossip and factual errors.

The goal of Eva Braun does not appear to be rehabilitation so much as sifting fact from conjecture and determining whether Braun should be recast from victim to villain. Görtemaker recently told the Observer, "[Braun] was in the loop and knew what was going on. She was no mere bystander," and she lays out her case to prove this. But despite its lofty ambitions, Leben mit Hitler does little to transcend the earlier portrait. Görtemaker wants us to believe that Braun's bimbo image originated with Hitler's efforts to disguise their relationship. She reports that Joseph Goebbels thought Braun was "a clever girl" -- a dubious honor. But her story does not stray far from the previous narrative. No new information has come to light, no secret diary discovered, no cache of correspondence: When Hitler was purging personal documents in the end days, it is believed any private journal Braun may have kept was destroyed too. Görtemaker reveals that Braun was more active in the Nazi plans for their postwar domination, involved with re-creating Linz as their new capital of culture. She attended a few high-level meetings at Hitler's side, often posing as a secretary, so she was not completely oblivious.

But without any real record, Görtemaker can only speculate about what Braun knew, what she believed, and what she did about it. She still comes off as a silly girl, and nothing explains why she fell in love with this genocidal creep, or why her devotion grew so strong that she turned her back on her despairing family. When her sister's husband was arrested for desertion, for example, there's no evidence that Braun did anything to convince Hitler to stay his execution.

Although Braun was 33 when she died, there is still something of the melodramatic, petulant teenage girl about her. She takes an overdose of sleeping pills when she fears Hitler's attentions are straying. She's jealous of the attention he pays his dog, and she sullenly kicks it when he's not around. She may rebel a little by smoking cigarettes, despite Hitler's disapproval, but she still willingly heels at his command, keeping their relationship a secret because he wants to maintain the illusion of being God-like and above such human needs as companionship or sex.

In fact, there is nothing at all interesting about Eva Braun except for the fact that she dated Hitler. The facts of her life are so mundane as to be interchangeable with any other woman of the era, except for that one twist. She longed for marriage ... with Hitler. She was so dreamily in love that she could not bear her family's criticisms of her boyfriend ... who happened to be Adolf Hitler. She dabbled in photography, mostly filming the men in her life ... Adolf Hitler and his top advisors. In the films she shot at Berghof, Hitler's Bavarian retreat, Hitler is shown meeting with dignitaries, conversing with his generals, staring out into the Bavarian landscape. Cut to Eva Braun, picking flowers with her girlfriend.

Looking at the same scanty collection of diary fragments, interviews, and letters, most historians see a nonentity -- while Görtemaker sees an intelligent, engaged woman who bears some responsibility for history, if only for not opening her mouth in protest. Görtemaker, who earned praise with her previous biography of post-World War II journalist Margret Boveri, is rigorous about discounting unsubstantiated anecdotes, but in other places she draws conclusions about Braun's personal political beliefs that don't have any rationale, making the assumption, for example, that because she never argued with Hitler she did not disagree with his actions in the war. Because of this, Görtemaker has met with some resistance from Germany's critics, even as they praise her scholarship. Die Welt called her analysis of the material "too speculative," and a disappointed Süddeutsche Zeitung admonished Görtemaker, "You can't write what you don't know." 

And there is a lot that Görtemaker and the rest of us do not know. With so little to go on, Braun still appears to be more metaphor than flesh and blood. Her blankness is her defining characteristic. Braun can be, and was in Angela Lambert's problematic biography The Lost Life of Eva Braun, a stand-in for the unquestioning wives of the officers who carried out Hitler's orders -- even for the nation of Germany itself. Or, if you'd like to take it further, for the wives of politicians who stand by loyally as their husbands drag us into war, women who marry serial killers serving life sentences in prison, or every woman who defends the boyfriend who brutalizes her night after night. We don't understand these women, just as we still don't quite understand how that whole Nazi Germany thing happened, no matter how much we analyze the historical record. Görtemaker's book is just the latest failure in this attempt.

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