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Posted at 12:11 PM ET, 02/ 7/2011

Our Man in Havana

By Jeff Stein

The U.S.-Cuba spy wars have long seemed more Monty Python than John Le Carré. As if more proof were needed, Cuban prosecutors announced Friday that they would seek a 20-year jail term for an American contractor arrested more than a year ago for giving satellite phones and computer gear to Cuban Jews.

The misadventures of Alan Gross, 61, of Bethesda, Md., may yet end in tragedy, if he does in fact end up spending long years in jail as an accused spy -- which he is almost certainly not, unless the CIA is far more clueless in Cuba than previously demonstrated.

But the betting by some people who watch such things closely is that Gross is slim bait in the way-too-long-running, post-Cold War farce that passes as U.S.-Cuba relations.

One possibility is that the Cubans will want to trade Gross for the “Cuban Five,” the intelligence officers convicted of spying for Havana in Florida in 2001 and now serving long sentences. Cuba has long sought their release, on grounds that they were not spying on the United States so much as anti-Castro “terrorists” in Florida.

“That was exactly my thought when I read about this [Gross] late yesterday -- that they are looking for trade goods so Raul [Castro] can claim a victory over the Yanquis,” said Harry B. “Skip” Brandon, a former FBI deputy assistant director for counterintelligence who specialized in Cuban espionage.

“The other possibility is to sentence him and then graciously declare leniency and hope to get a favorable chit with Obama…” Brandon added.

Saul Landau, a longtime journalist and filmmaker who made a friendly documentary about Fidel Castro in 1969 but turned more critical about him in subsequent films, likewise predicted that Cuban officials would jail Gross then try to earn positive points by releasing him.

“My guess is they have little hope for a swap -- given U.S. cold responses to this suggestion [in the past]. So why not sentence him, have him spend a month or two in the can and then release him -- a humanitarian gesture to the Catholic Church and [his] synagogue -- to return to the U.S.?”

Landau suggested that perhaps “Obama would make some positive response to this gesture.”

Gross is charged with "acts against the integrity and independence" of Cuba, a euphemism for espionage or other subversive acts. If anything, he sounds more like Alec Guinness in "Our Man in Havana" than Sean Connery in Russia House. Whatever the merits of the charges against him, handing out satellite phones without a license was bound to draw the attention of Cuba's counterspies.

“Gross is guilty on several counts,” Landau maintained, “but the Cubans know he's a minor pawn in an operation funded openly by Congress.”

The problem for Cuba -- and by extension, Gross -- is that Obama’s attention is focused elsewhere.

“Obama has not been paying much attention to Cuba -- and why would he?” Brandon said, “but the Cubans think they are the center of the world.”

By Jeff Stein  | February 7, 2011; 12:11 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Justice/FBI, Lawandcourts  | Tags:  Alan Gross; Harry B. "Skip" Brandon; Saul Landau; Fidel Castro  
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Sorry Jeff, but you really missed the point.

"American contractor arrested more than a year ago for selling satellite phones and computer gear to Cuban Jews."

He was giving not selling. We have no idea until Cuba presents its evidence to whom the equipment was going but certainly not to Jewish organizations that are well supplied with computers and internet connections by ORT.

Reliable sources say the hardware was B-GANS, a device that looks like a lap top computer and links directly to a satellite. E-mail can be easily transmitted and can be encrypted, sure to provoke suspicion in any country's security apparatus.

Regardless of the recipients of Gross's gifts or his motives, the Cubans have an open and shut case against him because he violated law 88 that prohibits undertaking programs in Cuba funded by USAID's democracy program, seen not unreasonably by the Cuban's as intended for destabilization and system change.

All that aside, US diplomats told Reuters and AP after the migration talks that Gross would be charged, tried (unless he confesses his guilt) and released.

The fact that the Cubans charged him is a step forward in bilateral relations because it meets a primary US demand articulated by Assistant Secretary Valenzuela at Brookings the week before the migration talks. No doubt the US would have preferred he be released without a trial, but they can hardly expect that he be charged with a misdemeanor given the symbolic significance of his carrying out in the Obama Administration a program designed by the hard line Cuban Americans who dominated Bush Administration Cuba policy.

Unfortunately for US officials who repeated the self-serving disingenuous spin of Development Alternatives Incorporated, if evidence is presented in court by the Cubans, it is likely to be embarrassing.

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Posted by: jmcauliff | February 7, 2011 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I believe as the specific facts begin to emerge, this story will be more sinister than first thought, possibly without the knowledge of Gross, who may be an unfortunate pawn of US foreign policy.

First of all, anyone who has passed through Cuban security when entering at an airport can tell you that it is impossible that he declared satellite equipment to the authorities. That would simply not be allowed to enter. Either it was passed off as regular computer equipment, or the more likely scenario, it was brought in through diplomatic channels and he picked it up from someone in Cuba.

If it is true that he was setting up powerful WiFi equipment for the use of anyone within range, then the only logical explanation is that it is part of a US strategy to give ordinary people more access to the internet in the hopes it will create dissension within the population. Either through social media or just more access to media.

I think it would be naive to believe the US government wants to quietly increase internet access just because they think it's a nice thing to do for Cubans.

In the end, it will probably become clear that Gross, knowingly or not, was involved in a program that was specifically designed to create dissension against the Cuban government. That would make it a lot more serious than someone trying simply to do a good deed for the Jewish community.

Posted by: CarlosM1 | February 7, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse

One can admire Mr.Gross' principles, but distributing cell phones in Cuba wasn't the brightest idea he ever had, unless he really wants to use c/o Castel Moro, Havana, Cuba as a postal address for the rest of his life.

Posted by: rmlwj1 | February 7, 2011 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Well said Mr McAuliff...

let the trial begin, so the world can learn the truth. I feel no sympathy for Mr Gross, or Mr Obama.

Posted by: barbablanca | February 7, 2011 4:43 PM | Report abuse


Why did you write this column? You repeatedly belittle the possibility that Gross could be intentionally doing something illegal and designed to further US government aims to overthrow the Cuban government. You do this in the title and numerous times throughout the article .

Yet to be even partially true, your minimizing of what Gross admitted he did, would require Gross was a dupe of his employer USAID and knew nothing about what was in his luggage. As you must know satellite phones don’t look like cell phones and cost about 10 times as much to buy and 100 times as much to operate. Gross was reported to have gone to Cuba 4 times in the year! How could he not know he was doing something illegal?

I’ve been to Cuba 4 times in 13 years and I can attest their customs and security is not lax. They even check smart phones for illegal GPS functions! Yes they want to control communications, but as far as I know, there is no multimillion program funded by Cuba to overthrow the US government! See

So why?

Posted by: wteague1 | February 7, 2011 8:30 PM | Report abuse

wsteague1: Thx for your comment. I wrote the column because, well, that's my job, and I call it as I see it. I wrote that this whole thing smacked of "Our Man in Havana" more than "Russian House" for the very same reason you put forth: "their customs and security is not lax. They even check smart phones for illegal GPS functions!" For so many other reasons that I suggested but did not enumerate, "handing out satellite phones without a license was bound to draw the attention of Cuba's counterspies." QED, this could not have been a CIA operation, as I also wrote, "unless the CIA is far more clueless in Cuba than previously demonstrated." But as you and others say, much has yet to come out.

Posted by: Jeff Stein | February 7, 2011 9:50 PM | Report abuse

the Castro Brothers....these guys...

Posted by: seanawilliams2001 | February 9, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

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