WASHINGTON – Representatives from the Cuban Interests Section said this week that until the Obama administration fully addresses Maryland resident Alan Gross’ intentions in Cuba, relations between the two countries will not improve.
Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested in December 2009 for distributing Internet communication materials on the island. He recently went on a brief hunger strike to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and U.S. governments. He is in poor health, according to his attorney.
Speaking at American University on Wednesday, First Secretary Warnel Lores Mora of the Cuban Interests Section, the island’s diplomatic headquarters in Washington, said Gross’ mission was needlessly covert because Cuba wants to provide Internet and better means of communications to its citizens.
“We want Internet,” said Mora. “The United States denies us the possibility to connect from Florida, 90 miles away…they prefer to waste the money for secret programs than provide us with the capability.”
The issue of Gross’ imprisonment has been in the spotlight since revelations that USAID, an agency better known for distributing aid to countries in need, created ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like platform in Cuba to spread anti-government messages. The initiative also allowed for the creation of a vast database about Cuban ZunZuneo subscribers, including gender, age, ‘receptiveness’ and ‘political tendencies,’ according to the Associated Press.
“There is a great hypocrisy in the policy,” Mora said. “We have complained for a long time about not being able to connect to Internet.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, called ZunZuneo “dumb” and decried USAID programs that resemble covert activities at a recent congressional hearing.
Second Secretary Alexander Rodriguez Salazar, who was also present at Wednesday’s discussion at American University, said that what Leahy said “made a lot of sense,” and added that Cuba does not recognize USAID as a legitimate presence in the country.
“USAID is illegal in Cuba. Anything USAID does in Cuba is illegal because their sole presence in Cuba is not permitted,” he said.
The Obama administration’s stance on the matter is that Gross wasn’t doing anything improper, despite Cuban law forbidding USAID’s presence, said WIlliam LeoGrande, a professor at American University and co-editor of “A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution.”
“The problem is that the U.S. doesn’t think the law needs to be respected,” said LeoGrande. “It offends Cuba’s sense of sovereignty that the United States acts like its laws don’t matter.”
In the past, Cuba has not demanded more information about Gross’ mission, he said.
“What was said at the forum suggests that one of the things (Cuba) wants is for the United States to be more candid about what U.S. democracy promotion programs are doing,” said LeoGrande.
The Cuban government has expressed a willingness to negotiate Gross’ release in exchange for three Cuban intelligence agents imprisoned in the U.S. LeoGrande said that, so far, the Obama administration has not been willing to have that discussion.
The U.S. and Cuba do not have formal diplomatic relations. The Interests Section of the Republic of Cuba in Washington is formally a section of the Swiss embassy, although it operates independently.
“Every day that he sits in prison in Havana is another day of injustice for Alan Gross and another day that Cuba is missing an important opportunity to begin to reshape its relations with the United States,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, in a statement.