Imprisoned in Cuba, Alan Gross is suing the U.S. government. And the documents the case reveals are putting the Obama administration in a tough spot.
At the very end of John Kerry's Jan. 24th confirmation hearing, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) treated him to a lecture about repression in Cuba. "And then we have a United States citizen who all he tried to do is give access to the Internet to a small Jewish population in Havana and has been languishing in jail for almost four years," Menendez asserted. "That is real torture." In his final question to Kerry, Menendez asked if "we can expect you to be a strong supporter" of U.S. "democracy programs worldwide?" The all-but-confirmed nominee for secretary of state answered, "yes."
The democracy program in Cuba that concerns Menendez has come under increasing public scrutiny since that U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, was detained in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009. In the wake of his arrest, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), none other than John Kerry, put a temporary hold on the USAID-run operation, officially known as the Cuban Democracy and Contingency Planning Program (CDCPP). For almost a year, the SFRC made an effort to bring a degree of accountability to this little-known, under-the-radar, $140 million U.S. government initiative in Cuba.
To his credit, it is Gross himself who has done the most to lift the veil of secrecy from the CDCPP. Last year, he and his wife, Judy, filed a civil lawsuit against USAID and the contractor for whom Gross worked as a consultant, Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), in an effort to call public attention to his plight and press the Obama administration to step up efforts to negotiate his release. Specifically, their suit seeks damages for the failure of USAID and DAI to inform him of the risks he faced, to "take basic remedial measures to protect Mr. Gross," and to provide the education and training "necessary to minimize the risk of harm to him."
Their legal complaint acknowledged that he was paid under a broader USAID contract with DAI to travel multiple times to Cuba, posing as a tourist, carrying specialized technology to establish independent satellite communications networks on various parts of the island; it quotes his own trip reports that this was "very risky business" for which he was not adequately trained or supervised.
This document, an August 2008 USAID contract with DAI, is one of a number of substantive records released in court filings by the suit that reveal the mission, procedures, and sensitive operations of USAID's Cuba program -- including contingency planning for political, civic, and economic support to a post-Castro government. Upgraded at the end of the Bush administration, the main objectives of the program are "hastening transition" to democracy (read: regime change), creating information channels to and from Cuba, and establishing a network through which USAID could create and deploy a "rapid response programmatic platform" on the island in the event of instability and transition.