American's Arrest In Cuba Could Have Impact

A U.S. contractor working to provide Internet service to Cuba's small Jewish community was charged with spying and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. Alan Gross was reportedly working for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Later in the program, a tribute to singer Whitney Houston who died yesterday at the age of 48. But first to another story that's crossed the wires in recent hours.

The Associated Press has been working on a month-long investigation into the case of 62-year-old Alan Gross. You might remember he was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba last year for violating Cuban laws against bringing in unauthorized satellite and computer equipment.

Gross was ostensibly on a mission on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Cubans accused him of being a spy. The State Department says he was there on a humanitarian mission to help Cuba's tiny Jewish community get access to the Internet. But new evidence unearthed by The Associated Press suggests Gross was doing work for USAID that could be considered covert. Desmond Butler reported the story, and he joins me now.

Desmond, let's start with the purpose of Gross' travels to Cuba. Who was he working for, and what was he supposed to be doing?

DESMOND BUTLER: Alan Gross was a subcontractor. He was hired by a company called DAI that does a lot of work for USAID. The mission was to set up uncensored Wi-Fi networks in Cuba that the government would have a hard time paying attention to.

RAZ: And that network would be for the Jewish community in Cuba.

BUTLER: Correct.

RAZ: And about 1,500 Cuban Jews there.

BUTLER: Right.

RAZ: Your story says that Gross represented himself as a member of a Jewish organization, not as a representative of USAID.

BUTLER: That's right, and that was very important, because Cuba considers all of this kind of democracy promotion work for the U.S. government illegal, so he really needed to keep his mission under wraps.

RAZ: One of the things you discovered, Desmond, is that he managed to smuggle in a SIM card, a chip, that can be used to avoid government oversight of Internet communications. In other words, it would allow people in Cuba to use the Internet without concern - without worry that the government was monitoring them. These chips, you write, are only available to governments and intelligence agencies.

BUTLER: That's right. This is a very sensitive piece of technology. And the question is - USAID is an agency that was set up to do humanitarian work around the world, and it's the main arm of U.S. foreign aid. As they move into this contentious democracy promotion work in hostile countries, does that jeopardize its very important humanitarian work?

RAZ: The work of people helping, you know, doing agricultural aid and showing, you know, going around the world...

BUTLER: Vaccine drives.

RAZ: Vaccines, right. U.S. Congress mandated that the U.S. government spend $20 million a year, right, on democracy promotion in Cuba. So if it's illegal according to the Cuban government, what - I mean, that's a catch-22. What do U.S. agencies do? They have to spend this money, right?

BUTLER: They have to spend the money. It's very difficult work and, as we've learned, very dangerous work. But they've been doing it.

RAZ: In Gross' trial, he essentially suggested that he was - he didn't know about any of this. He didn't know that what he was doing was illegal or covert. What's your sense? Did he know that he was doing something that was a violation of Cuban law?

BUTLER: He said at the trial that he was duped, but his own reports make it very clear that he knew that he was taking serious risks. He wrote at one point: This is very risky business in no uncertain terms.

RAZ: He took five trips to Cuba, and he wrote logs about his trips, and that's what you had access to.

BUTLER: Correct.

RAZ: He's now in prison for 15 years. Any chance that the Cubans will release him?

BUTLER: There's been no indication so far. There have been extensive diplomatic efforts to get him released, but the Cubans do not seem to be playing ball on that.

RAZ: That's Desmond Butler. He's a reporter for The Associated Press, talking about the case of Alan Gross, the American contractor jailed in Cuba on suspicion of being a spy. Gross and the U.S. State Department, of course, deny that. Desmond, thanks for coming in.

BUTLER: Thank you very much for having me, Guy.

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