Development Alternatives, Inc. and the case of Alan Gross

Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba in December of 2009 for distributing IT equipment to Cubans on the island. Gross came into the country on a tourist visa, did not declare the items that he brought, and did not seek permission to distribute them. Sent by Development Alternatives, Inc., a subcontractor to USAID, Gross has paid a high price for this unauthorized activity—he’s been in jail in Cuba ever since. At long last, his trial took place last week. A verdict has yet to be announced.

Though he may not have realized it, Gross was breaking the law.* From the perspective of the Cuban government, he was not just violating customs regulations and donating unauthorized hardware to citizens–he was helping to lay the groundwork for a tech-supported opposition movement, funded by the US. He has been charged with espionage and engaging in “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” and may face up to twenty years in prison if convicted.

One important piece here, which largely has been overlooked in recent media coverage of the case, is the role of USAID and their ambiguously-named subcontractor, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) in what happened to Alan Gross. According to a 2009 NYT article published shortly after Gross’s arrest, DAI had “won an American government contract in 2008 to promote the rule of law and human rights in Cuba,” and declared Gross’s acts to be “legitimate” on these grounds. But all US officials have acknowledged that it was wrong for Gross to enter Cuba on a tourist visa. Why couldn’t he enter as an aid worker? As far as I can tell, neither USAID nor DAI is authorized by the Cuban government to do this kind of work in Cuba–in fact, according to a March 9th article in the Miami Herald, it is illegal under Cuban law for citizens to receive assistance from any U.S. government agency, including USAID. To make matters worse for Gross, USAID has had ties to the CIA for decades, and Cuba is quite intently aware of this.

Alan Gross claims that he went to Cuba thinking that he was handing out cell phones and computer equipment for the greater good, and most evidence indicates that this is true. According to AFP, Gross has since accused DAI of “having put him in danger, leading him to his current situation and ruining the life and economic well-being of him and his family.” But what he knew of the predicament he would be in once in Cuba is not entirely clear.

This raises important questions about the ethics of development work in foreign countries. Should government aid agencies be allowed to pursue development projects in countries where they’re not welcome? In the Cuban case, I don’t think they should. More on this soon.

I wrote this piece hastily, mostly with the intention of initiating some ideas about the ethics (or lack thereof) of aid work in a place like Cuba. As the facts of this particular case continue to emerge, I find myself questioning Gross’ claim that he didn’t know what he was getting into. The details regarding the particular kinds of equipment he distributed have also become more clear, and make his case seem less defensible. I may write more on this soon, but I will triple check my sources the next time around.

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2 thoughts on “Development Alternatives, Inc. and the case of Alan Gross

  1. Ken Ringwood says:

    This couldnt be further from the truth,Mr.Gross was put in danger by DAI and they should be held liable.At his trial the jewish community in Cuba claimed that they did not know Mr.gross,not true but protecting themselves from their Communist country.Customes didnt do their job if mr.gross brought in Computers and cell Phones.here in South Florida there is a huge population of Cubans,Gross went there with good intentions of having families communicate with each other.it cost $1.00 per minute to call family in Cuba from the USA,now if the USA is allowing us to travel to this country,arent they putting us in danger?Let Allen Gross come home to his family,i know him personally and if he is a spy then Im Jesus Christ!

    1. halfwired says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that DAI was in the wrong here, though I’m not sure if they can technically be held liable for Gross’ actions. Since I wrote this post, I think that the case has shed important light on the inherent problems with aid programs in Cuba, and that USAID and members of Congress have had a chance to observe and take action on this, which is a good thing. And I don’t doubt that Alan Gross went to Cuba with the honest intention of helping Cubans. But I continue to believe that each entity in the chain of events here–from Congress members who allocated money for USAID projects in Cuba, to the USAID agents who contracted the work out to DAI, to Mr. Gross himself–failed to take full responsibility for what was happening here. Alan Gross knew that he did not have authorization to bring these materials to Cuba, or even to travel to the island for purposes outside of tourism. While these laws may seem unfair, and the punishment wildly disproportionate to the crime, they are still laws. It is a terrible situation, and I hope that Gross is released as soon as possible. But I also hope that this case will show the US that these covert, unauthorized “aid” projects badly damage our prospects for encouraging stronger human rights protections in Cuba and for ultimately normalizing relations with the country.

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