March 16, 2011
Phil Peters, Miami Herald
With Alan P. Gross sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison for dutifully carrying out a U.S. Agency for International Development assignment, it is time for President Obama to end the high-cost, low-impact Bush-era programs that put this hapless Maryland businessman in predictable danger.
He should do so not as a concession to Havana, but to basic common sense.
Gross’ saga began with a $585,000 contract to install satellite Internet networks in Cuba. Since USAID consistently warns that its activities violate Cuban law, he was to evade a communist intelligence apparatus that begins at the airport and extends to every neighborhood.
That’s a daunting and unlikely assignment for an economic-development professional with no Spanish-language skills and no experience in Cuba.
But Congress had provided $45 million for Cuba democracy programs in 2008. The Bush administration, committed to ending communist rule on the island, was determined to spend it quickly and innovatively. And USAID, stung by cases of embezzlement and misused funds by a few grantees, had turned to Washington-area contractors to carry out its Cuba programs.
That is how Gross came to join USAID’s amateur-hour covert operations in Cuba. U.S. officials say that he traveled a half-dozen times in 2009 to meet members of Cuba’s Jewish community and others. His equipment provides Internet access with voice and video and a limited wi-fi hotspot.
It is unclear how anyone involved weighed the risks — to Gross himself working on a tourist visa or to his Cuban beneficiaries who, perhaps unwittingly, were linking to a U.S. government program explicitly designed to overturn their government. USAID’s idea seems to be that everyone takes their own risks, and if something goes wrong, then blame Havana for blocking free Internet.
What is clear is that Gross’ Internet connections, beyond being short-lived, may be the most expensive in history. For the cost of his contract, overhead and satellite airtime, one could easily have provided $1,000 to every Jewish household in Cuba to use as they wish.
But open-ended support to the Cuban people was not part of a Bush policy that was heavy on government restrictions and micromanagement and biased against good private initiatives.
Hence, President Bush spent taxpayer money to send foreign artists and musicians to connect with counterparts in Cuba, while denying licenses to Americans who would carry out people-to-people programs on their own dime. And while looking for ways to spend government money on Internet and technology in Cuba, he kept the American private sector out, even forcing American companies to block downloads of free software by users in Cuba.
President Obama has wisely stopped denying Cubans access to tools such as instant messaging, blogging platforms and open-source software. He increased grassroots contact and support by giving Cuban Americans complete freedom to travel and now through expanded nontourist travel and remittances by all Americans.
The irony is that a president tagged as a big-government liberal is cutting regulations, giving Americans more freedom to engage with Cubans as we see fit. He should press on with an overhaul of USAID’s programs, unapologetically ending third-country spending and pseudo-covert operations that play into the hands of Cuban state security.
President Obama is short on macho rhetoric and hollow regime-change promises, but his approach delivers results: effective communication and support for Cuban citizens, churches, and other institutions at a time when their economic opportunities are increasing and they have a lot of history to make.
Phil Peters is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. and writes the blog The Cuban Triangle.