HAVANA (Reuters) - An American convicted of subversive acts in Cuba last year tried to keep his work undercover and was aware of its political aims, Cuban officials said in a leaked court document published this week.
Alan Gross, 62, has been jailed in Cuba since December 3, 2009, and is serving a 15-year sentence for providing Internet gear to Cubans under a U.S. program that Cuba views as subversive. Gross’ attorney said he went to Cuba only to help the island’s Jewish community, not for political purposes.
A leaked copy of an 18-page Cuban sentencing document came to light this week, providing details about Cuba’s allegations and Gross’ trial for the first time.
Neither Cuban officials nor Gross’ attorney denied the authenticity of the document, which was published this week by Cafe Fuerte, a Miami-based news blog heavily focused on Cuba.
The court document said Gross tried to avoid detection by using American tourists to transport sophisticated satellite Internet gear to Cuba and showed residents how to use the Internet without the Cuban government’s knowledge. Information is tightly controlled on the Caribbean island, Internet use is limited and visitors are not allowed to carry satellite technology.
Gross worked in Cuba in 2009 for a U.S.-funded program to promote political change by increasing Internet access and the flow of communications. Cuba views such programs as part of longstanding U.S. attempts to topple the island’s Communist government.
Gross, a veteran development worker, went to Cuba five times as a subcontractor for Maryland-based DAI, which had a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
USAID said in a statement on Friday that Gross’s job was “simply facilitating Internet connectivity to the Cuban people so they could communicate with the rest of the world.”
“Alan Gross has been unjustly imprisoned for more than two years,” USAID said in an emailed statement.
According to the sentencing report, Gross set up the Internet in Jewish centers in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey as part of what was planned to be a network of undercover Internet outlets around the country.
It said he was to meet with a member of the fraternal organization known as the Masons to discuss setting up Internet networks in Masonic lodges on December 3, 2009, the day Cuban authorities seized him.
The court said it found evidence, including on the flash drives and computer confiscated during his arrest, that Gross knew more than he admitted and took action to avoid detection, including using American tourists to bring Internet equipment to Cuba without telling them what it was for.
The gear included three satellite Internet terminals, or BGANs, along with Blackberry phones, iPods and an assortment of other electronics.
The court said he could have been paid up to $258,274 for his work, which showed “the lucrative, conspiratorial and concealed character of his actions.”
The court said Gross got involved in Cuba as early as 2004 when he accepted $400 from another U.S.-backed program to take a video camera to Jose Manuel Collera Vento, a member of the Masons in Cuba.
Collera was an agent for the Cuban government, the court said, implying that Gross was on the radar of Cuban intelligence services well before his current problems.
Gross’ lawyer, Peter Kahn, said the court document proved nothing about the allegedly subversive acts for which his client was convicted in March 2011.
It “is further confirmation of what we have said all along. The Cuban authorities cannot point to any action that Alan P. Gross intended to subvert their government,” he said in a statement. “The Cuban government knows that Alan never intended to, or in fact ever was, a threat to them.”
“The trial evidence cited in the document confirms that Alan’s actions were intended to improve the Internet and Intranet connectivity of Cuba’s small, peaceful, non-dissident, Jewish community,” Kahn said. “All this document evidences is that it was the USAID program that was on trial in Cuba.”
Not mentioned, he said, was testimony from Cuban Jews “who unequivocally testified that Alan never uttered a single word nor took any action which could be considered subversive.”
When Gross himself brought in one of the BGANs, he declared it at the Havana airport and was not told by Cuban customs officers it was illegal. The court said he told them that it was a modem.
During his trial, Gross said, “I did nothing in Cuba that is not done on a daily basis in millions of home and offices around the world ... I am deeply sorry for being a trusting fool. I was duped, I was used.”
The new document, if authentic, fuels some critics’ long-held view that the clandestine nature of the program and U.S.-government funding was destined to backfire.
“The programs did not involve our intelligence community, but the secrecy surrounding them, the clandestine tradecraft (including the use of advanced encryption technologies) and the deliberate concealment of the U.S. hand, had all the markings of an intelligence covert operation,” said Fulton Armstrong, who until recently was a lead investigator with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff.
“We confirmed that State and USAID had no policy in place to brief individuals conducting these secret operations or that they are not legal in Cuba,” said Armstrong, writing in a recent opinion column in The Miami Herald.
“Nor did State and USAID brief them that U.S. law similarly does not allow unregistered foreign agents to travel around the United States providing satellite gear, wide-area WiFi hotspots, encryption and telephony equipment and other cash-value assistance.”
The Gross case has put a hold on U.S.-Cuba relations that warmed slightly after U.S. President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.
The U.S. government has said Gross should not be jailed for providing Internet access to Jews and has repeatedly demanded his release.
His wife, Judy Gross, has pleaded for his freedom because their daughter and his mother have cancer.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn)
Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by David Adams and Stacey Joyce