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.