HAVANA TIMES, March 14 (IPS) — The 15-year jail sentence handed down over the weekend to U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who was found guilty in Cuba of “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state,” is part of a new chapter in the conflict between Havana and Washington, which is now playing out in cyberspace.
Cuban authorities say Gross was providing sophisticated communication technology to internal opposition groups, including independent journalists and other activists whose anti-government activities have mainly been carried out over the Internet, vía blogs and social networking sites.
According to a U.S. State Department communiqué, Gross “is a dedicated international development worker who has devoted his life to helping people in more than 50 countries. He was in Cuba to help the Cuban people connect with the rest of the world.”
When he was arrested in Cuba on Dec. 3, 2009, Gross was working for a Maryland-based firm, Development Alternatives, as a subcontractor on a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program to promote democracy in Cuba.
The U.S. government says his work mainly involved distributing laptops and satellite phone equipment to the Jewish community in Cuba, to give them remote access to the Internet.
In a statement broadcast after the sentence was issued Saturday, the Cuban government said that during the trial Gross “recognized having been used and manipulated” by USAID and the U.S. State Department.
Gross, 61, has the right to appeal the sentence to Cuba’s Supreme Court. The prosecutor had sought the maximum sentence, 20 years.
According to the official statement, the evidence presented in the trial demonstrated Gross’s participation “in a subversive project of the U.S. government” aimed at destabilizing the Cuban government “through the use of communications systems outside of the control of authorities.”
The Gross family was “devastated by the verdict and harsh sentence announced today,” said Gross’s attorney Peter Kahn. “Alan and his family have paid an enormous personal price in the long-standing political feud between Cuba and the United States,” he added.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said “Today’s sentencing adds another injustice to Alan Gross’s ordeal,” and called for his immediate release.
Cuba builds its case against US meddling
The news of his sentence coincided in Cuba with the announcement of a new episode of the documentary series “Las razones de Cuba” (Cuba’s Reasons) aired by state-run television. The episode, “Mentiras bien pagadas” (Well-Paid Lies), will focus Monday night on “the financing for the U.S. cyberwar against the island,” according to official sources.
The Cubadebate web site says Monday’s episode will focus on how Washington allegedly finances activists and independent reporters who mainly express their views over the Internet, and who purportedly receive instructions to focus on issues “from a counter-revolutionary perspective.”
“The documentary will offer, besides information declassified by the Cuban government, details on the budget funds received by USAID for subversive purposes towards Cuba,” added Cubadebate, which describes itself as a web site “against terrorism in the media.”
After Gross’s trial was finished but the sentence was still pending, another episode of “Las razones de Cuba” was broadcast, dedicated to showing how the U.S. government has introduced communication technologies into this Caribbean island nation to promote “subversive actions.”
In the program, a young telecommunications expert told how he was recruited in 2007 by a U.S. organization that gave him four satellite antennas disguised as surf boards, to set up illegal communication networks in Cuba.
The focus of the U.S. government’s Cuba policy shifted more sharply towards cyberspace last year after the whistleblower web site Wikileaks published a confidential diplomatic cable sent by the head of the U.S. Interests Section (USINT) in Havana which, besides describing the traditional dissident groups in Cuba as largely ineffectual, stressed the social impact that others, like bloggers, can have.
“We also must continue to open up Cuba to the information age…to facilitate and encourage the younger generations of Cubans seeking greater freedom and opportunity,” USINT head Jonathan Farrar said in the cable dated Apr. 15, 2009.
Gross’s sentence also seems to slam the door shut on further moves to ease U.S. restrictions against Cuba, a possibility that was widely discussed after President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, but which since last year has been discarded by senior officials in the government of Raul Castro.