Cuba Jails American For Handing Out Cell Phones

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The State Department is trying to gain access to an American who was recently jailed in Cuba. The unidentified man is believed to be a contractor working on a U.S. government project to hand out cell phones and laptops on the island.


An American has been sitting in a Cuban jail or more than a week now. It seems he got in trouble while handing out free cell phones and laptops on the island. The State Department is trying to gain access to the jailed American. He's believed to be a contractor working on a U.S. government project. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: State Department spokesman Ian Kelly says the U.S. has a number of programs to promote democracy in Cuba, which he said are open to scrutiny, but when it came to this case he had very little to say at his briefing yesterday. The trouble is, Kelly said, U.S. diplomats in Havana have not been able to see or talk to the individual who was arrested ten days ago.

Mr. IAN KELLY (Spokesman, State Department): We're trying to get access to the individual involved, and we would expect the government of Cuba to honor its obligations under the Vienna Convention On Consular affairs and grant us access. So we are calling on the Cuban government to do that in a very expeditious way.

KELEMEN: The president of Development Alternatives, the Maryland-based company that employed the man, said, in a statement, that the detained individual was working on a program to assist Cuban civil society. The Cuban government has also had little to say about the case, which is raising lots of questions among experts here, including Tomas Bilbao, the executive director of the Cuba Study Group.

Mr. TOMAS BILBAO (Executive director, Cuba Study Group): For a country that recently legalized the sale of laptops and cell phones, it seems quite interesting that they would deem a threat that someone is giving them away for free. Given the fact that the Cuban government is the seller of these cell phones and laptops, maybe they just don't like the competition.

KELEMEN: The contractor apparently went to the island on a tourist visa, which could put him on shaky legal grounds. Bilbao argued he probably had not other choice.

Mr. BILBAO: I don't think there is a humanitarian assistance visa that the Cuban government offers. So frankly, I'm, you know, I'm at a loss as to what visa he should have been traveling to Cuba under.

KELEMEN: But Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute said this was simply an accident waiting to happen.

Mr. PHIL PETERS (Lexington Institute): I can't imagine what instructions were given to this poor guy. I mean, going to Cuba is not like going to Connecticut. I just think that he was exposed to extraordinary risk. And I can't imagine you could send somebody to Cuba on a mission like that, as if he's some kind of secret agent, but, in fact, he's just an AID contractor.

KELEMEN: The program, run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, started last year under the Bush administration, and Peters says it has not been transparent. He'd like to see the Obama administration rethink it or even drop it.

Mr. PETERS: The United States frames that program almost explicitly in regime change terms. So, whether you think that's a good thing or not, the Cuban government doesn't like it. The Cuban government has intelligence services that are, you know, on their toes. The result is that any American that goes to Cuba to carry out this program is doing so at great risk to himself or herself and to the Cubans who are recipients of the aid.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has changed its tone when it comes to Cuba. But as one congressional source said, changing what the bureaucracy does takes a lot more effort. Many experts, including the ones interviewed for this report, argue there is a better way to support civil society in Cuba - one that doesn't involve U.S. government programs - that is lifting the travel ban and allowing all Americans to visit the island.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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