Cuba Plans To Put U.S. Government Worker On Trial

An American jailed in Cuba is accused of acting on a U.S. plot to destabilize the Caribbean nation by spreading access to the Internet. U.S. officials insist the 61-year-old Maryland resident's activities were a harmless attempt to improve Internet access for the island's small Jewish community.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go to Cuba now, where a U.S. government contractor has been held since he was arrested over a year ago and accused of distributing satellite equipment. Cuban authorities portray his work as part of a high-tech plan to subvert the Castro government. They now say he will put on trial and could face a 20 year sentence.

Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF: Alan Gross came to Cuba on a tourist visa, and he was arrested trying to leave in December 2009. His trial date has not yet been set, but Cuban prosecutors said, this month, they will charge him with Actions Against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State.

Gloria Berbena is a spokesperson for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.

Ms. GLORIA BERBENA (Spokesperson, U.S. Interests Section in Havana): As we've said many times before, Mr. Gross is a dedicated international development worker. He's been held without charge for more than a year, contrary to all international human rights obligations and commitments regarding justice and due process. He should be home with his family now.

MIROFF: U.S. officials and Gross's family insist the 61-year-old Maryland resident's activities were a harmless attempt to improve Internet access for the island's small Jewish community. But Cuban officials see his work in far more sinister terms, even suggesting he's a spy. A recently-leaked video from a Cuban state security briefing, allegedly given last June, may offer the best insight yet into what the Castro government's case will be against Gross.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: In the tape, whose authenticity hasn't been disputed by the government, a young Cuban intelligence official lectures in detail on alleged plans by USAID and others American entities, trying to set up unmonitored communication networks. Gross was a mercenary, he claims, tasked with installing laptop-sized satellites that would give Cubans Web access outside the government's control.

Opposition groups in Cuba could then use the connections to foment uprisings similar to those in the Ukraine, or Iran, he says.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: This is a kind of permanent war, and we must keep in mind that the Internet is a battlefield, the security official tells his audience. The enemy has deployed its troops and we can't just run away. We have to bring our strength and knowledge to this fight, he says.

The lecture also shows that Gross's efforts are viewed as just one component of a broader strategy to promote a new generation of Castro opponents, like prizewinning blogger Yoani Sanchez. Unlike the old guard of anti-Castro dissidents who tried to organize in the streets, these activists are doing it through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms, he explains, so Cuba needs to fight back using those same technologies.

(Soundbite of typing and conversations)

MIROFF: At this post office in Havana's Vedado neighborhood, Cubans line up to pay two dollars an hour of to send emails on computers that don't even connect to the Internet. Web access at tourist hotels can costs five times that, a small fortune here.

The island currently has the lowest levels of Internet use in the hemisphere, but that could change with the completion of a new undersea fiber optic cable that now links Cuba to Venezuela. It will increase the country's bandwidth by a factor of 3,000 when it goes online this summer.

Mr. EDUARDO EMILIO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The Internet is a necessity, said 35-year-old Eduardo Emilio. But despite his sense of need, he's never actually been online. He wants go on Facebook, soccer Web sites, and follow Cuban boxers who've left the island and gone pro, but he's not yet convinced he'll get there. We'll have to see what they allow, he said.

If Cuba's arrest of Alan Gross has put a freeze on the U.S. effort to set up independent Web networks, it's not clear what Cuba will do with Gross himself. U.S. officials have warned that a long prison sentence will deal a major setback to tentative steps toward improved relations.

But if Cuba views the Internet as the new battlefield in a long dispute with the U.S., its confidence may be improving. One day before the undersea cable to Venezuela was finished the government also stopped blocking access to the site of opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

MONTAGNE: And you are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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