In Cuba, Jailed American Faces Trial

Today, American contractor Alan Gross goes on trial in Cuba. He's charged with "acts against the integrity and independence" of the state. Gross says he was just trying to help enhance Internet connectivity for the island's small Jewish community. Nick Miroff is watching, and he speaks with host Melissa Block.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The U.S. is keeping a close eye today on the trial of an American contractor in Cuba. Alan Gross has been in Cuban custody since his arrest more than a year ago. He's accused of working for a U.S. government program aimed at changing the regime in Cuba. But Alan Gross and the U.S. government say he was just trying to help Cuba's small Jewish community connect to the internet.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that the Obama administration is deeply concerned about his case.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): He's been unjustly jailed for far too long. We call on the government of Cuba to release him and unconditionally allow him to leave Cuba and return to his family to bring an end to their long ordeal.

BLOCK: For more on the trial today, I'm joined by Nick Miroff from Havana. And, Nick, tell us more about Alan Gross. What happened to him in Cuba?

NICK MIROFF: Well, Alan Gross is a 61-year-old Maryland resident. He was arrested in Havana in December 2009. He was working for a company called Development Associates International as part of a USAID program to promote democratic change in Cuba.

BLOCK: OK. Promote democratic change and for some reason, that led him into trouble with the Cuban authorities. What exactly is he being charged with?

MIROFF: That's right. Well, he's being charged with acts against the independent and territorial integrity of the state. And basically the government says he was here trying to set up satellite internet networks that are part of a broader plan to undermine the Cuban government.

From what we know, that was a small satellite called a BGAN. It allows a small number of people to connect to the internet. And as U.S. officials insist, his only goal was to help the island's Jewish community connect better with the rest of the world.

BLOCK: Now, foreign journalists, I understand, are not allowed into the courtroom to cover the trial. You were outside the courthouse today. What were you able to learn there?

MIROFF: That's right. He's being tried in a small municipal courthouse far away from the city center. Gross is there with his wife, his U.S. attorney, his Cuban attorney and U.S. consular officials. And the Cuban media, the state-run media is being allowed in and that may be a sign that the proceedings are going to show up on television soon. I think in some ways it's not just Gross that's on trial, it's also the entire USAID program here in Cuba that the government wants to prosecute.

BLOCK: And the Cubans have said they are seeking a 20-year sentence if he's convicted. How long do you think this trial will go on?

MIROFF: It's not clear. Court proceedings here are typically pretty swift. If he is given a severe sentence like that, it's not clear how long he will serve, given that this is obviously going to create a major source of strain for U.S./Cuba relations at a time when they were taking some tentative steps forward.

BLOCK: And we heard a few minutes ago from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on this case. Are there back door negotiations that are going on, do you know, that would enable Alan Gross to come back to the United States?

MIROFF: Well, we're not sure. U.S. officials have expressed optimism here that Gross would be allowed to come home. They expect him to be convicted and probably given a sentence. As to whether or not there are negotiations going on, we don't really know at this point.

BLOCK: OK. Reporter Nick Miroff, speaking with us from Havana. Nick, thanks very much.

MIROFF: Thank you, Melissa.

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