WASHINGTON – A U.S. government plan to create a Twitter-like platform in Cuba was dumb and may have endangered the life of 64-year-old Bethesda resident Alan Gross and others around the world, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said at a Congressional hearing Tuesday.
Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested in Cuba in December 2009 for distributing Internet and communications materials on behalf of the agency.
On Thursday, Gross began a hunger strike to protest both his imprisonment by Cuba and U.S. inaction on his case.
The separate USAID social media program has reignited interest in Gross’ plight.
The program was intended to popularize a Cuban version of Twitter known as ZunZuneo among youths to spark political conversations and dissent. Its existence from 2010 to 2012 was revealed last week by the Associated Press.
Chief of USAID Rajiv Shah testified that the program was not covert, just “discreet,” at a hearing of the State, Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday.
The social media platform was built through secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, according to the Associated Press. Cuban users were not aware of the tool’s connection to the U.S. government until last week.
Leahy called the Twitter program “cockamamie” and “dumb in its inception.”
He and other senators expressed concern that the secretive program will taint USAID employees as spies, endangering those in sensitive or unstable locations. Leahy said he’s already received emails from past and current agency employees from around the world asking, “How could they do this and put us in such danger?”
USAID is a government agency that seeks to assist struggling nations around the world through economic, development and humanitarian means while supporting U.S. foreign policy goals. It is best known as the institution responsible for administering civilian foreign aid.
“When I think about USAID, I think ‘humanitarian’…I can’t imagine why USAID would want to be involved or even should be involved…in something like going into a country and trying to get Internet access to people opposing the regime,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., at the hearing.
Leahy further condemned USAID and the Obama administration for failing to get Gross out of Cuba, where he has been held for more than four years in degenerating health.
Gross’s lawyer, Scott Gilbert, said USAID’s actions have put him at greater risk.
“Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba,” said Gilbert, in a statement released Tuesday. “USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another. Running this program is contrary to everything we have been told by high-level representatives of the Obama Administration about USAID’s activities in Cuba.”
Gross is currently serving his fifth year of a 15-year sentence, which, given his age and poor health, Leahy called “basically a death sentence.”
Since his detainment, Gross has lost more than 110 pounds, said Gilbert. He is kept in a small cell with the lights on at all times with two other prisoners for 23 hours a day.
Gross was made aware of the risks he was taking in Cuba before departing on the mission, said Shah in his testimony.
Shah said the ZunZuneo program is in line with USAID’s efforts to increase the flow of information in Cuba and denied reports that it was meant to foment dissent.
Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, and former chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said the initiative by USAID is going to backfire.
“This is not the sort of thing they should be involved in. I couldn’t disagree more with the whole idea,” he said. “This incident can only serve to worsen relations between the United States and Cuba. We were headed in the right direction…but this was clearly trying to undercut the Cuban government.”