Dept Of Secrets

Our Man in Havana

Our Man in Havana

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.

The contract shows that USAID’s program intends to be prepared for a variety of contingencies in Cuba, including, as the implementation section of this document suggests, "if a USG-Determined Transition occurs, and USAID is asked to provide assistance." In that event, USAID hoped to have staffing, networking, and infrastructure in place to be able to rapidly supply financial, technological, and educational assistance to help a new government consolidate. The CDCPP is designed "to support Cuba’s pro-democracy actors," the document states. "This task order will provide a contractual mechanism that will allow the USG to respond quickly to different types of opportunities or emergencies, particularly those that may result from macro-political changes." 

Due to the sensitivity of these operations, the "CDCPP demands continuous discretion," states another document attached to DAI’s Jan. 15 motion to dismiss the suit. But the suit itself is already eroding the discreet nature of the USAID Cuba democracy operation, and opening it to public debate over the wisdom, propriety, and efficacy of the program. In DAI’s decision to file these documents in court there seems to be an element of "graymail" — the threat of exposure of far more sensitive information about the surreptitious nature of its work with the U.S. government in Cuba — if the lawsuit goes forward. DAI’s motion states clearly that the company is "deeply concerned that the development of the record in this case over the course of litigation could create significant risks to the U.S. Government’s national security, foreign policy, and human rights interests."

The incoming secretary of state is no stranger to the Cuba issue. Indeed, the beginning of the Kerry era at the State Department presents an opportunity to reevaluate not only the democracy program, but the Obama administration’s overall approach to Cuba policy. Despite Obama’s campaign pledge to "write a new chapter" in U.S.-Cuban relations during his first term, the president failed to substantively alter Washington’s half-century posture of hostility toward the Castro regime. The fact that Alan Gross’s freedom depends on a new approach to U.S.-Cuban relations is an added incentive for that reevaluation to be expeditious.

When I visited Gross in late November in the military hospital where he is incarcerated, he told me that he wanted to see the United States and Cuba "sit down and talk tachlis – truthfully — about mutual interests," including his case. It is now up to Kerry to move toward a normal dialogue with the Cuban government in which Gross’s case can be resolved. 

Read Gross’s lawsuit and contract with DAI on the next page.

Alan Gross Lawsuit 

USAID DAI Contract