A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

What Was Alan Gross Doing in Cuba?


In accounts from both sides of the aisle, recently-freed Alan Gross has been portrayed as a humanitarian simply trying to bring Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. But there’s more to the story than that shorthand suggests.

Although Gross entered Cuba on a handful of occasions on a tourist visa and purported to be a member of a Jewish humanitarian group, Gross was actually doing work as a subcontractor for a pro-democracy program funded by the U.S. government, work for which Gross was being paid about a half million dollars. Reporting by the Associated Press revealed that Gross was covertly bringing in technology known to be illegal in Cuba — equipment such as satellite phones and a chip that allows Internet use without detection. Reports obtained by the AP also revealed that Gross knew what he was doing was “very risky business” and that detection of the equipment would be “catastrophic.”

For those unfamiliar with the full story, comments by Sen. Marco Rubio and President Barack Obama might suggest a purely innocuous purpose to Gross’ mission.

On the day he announced a restoring of diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama told a group at a Hanukkah Reception: “Five years ago, [Gross] was arrested by Cuban authorities simply for helping ordinary Cubans, including Cuba’s small Jewish community, access information on the Internet.”

On Fox News the same day, Dec. 17, Rubio called Gross “a hostage” who “did nothing wrong.” Rubio said Gross “was taken hostage because he was helping the Jewish community in Cuba have access to the Internet.”

Gross was in Cuba to try to help the Jewish community gain unfettered Internet access. That’s correct. But the characterization of Gross as “simply” carrying out a humanitarian cause leaves out the subversive intent of Gross’ mission.

Citing trip reports that he obtained, AP reporter Desmond Butler wrote in 2012 that Gross — working under a contract for the U.S. Agency for International Development — smuggled into Cuba an array of communication technology including laptops, smartphones, satellite phones and a mobile phone chip that makes it impossible to track where a call is coming from. Sources in the intelligence community told Butler the chip was “not available on the open market and is distributed only to governments.” The idea was to allow those in the Jewish community to have unfettered access to the Internet. But it was also serving USAID’s larger goal of promoting democracy in the communist state.

A 2013 GAO report says, “Since 1996, Congress has appropriated $205 million to USAID and State to support democracy assistance for Cuba. Because of Cuban government restrictions, conditions in Cuba pose security risks to the implementing partners — primarily NGOs — and subpartners that provide U.S. assistance.” (The report – which is a declassified version — says that the $205 million is from FY1996 through FY2011.)

The GAO report also says, “Cuban law prohibits citizens from cooperating with U.S. democracy assistance activities.”

Gross’ company, JDBC Inc., was hired by Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, Md., which the AP notes had a multimillion dollar contract with USAID “to break Cuba’s information blockade by ‘technological outreach through phone banks, satellite Internet and cell phones.’ ” Cuban authorities tightly restrict use of the Internet. On his fifth trip to Cuba, Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities, and in 2011 a Cuban court found Gross guilty of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Cuban officials consider USAID activity in Cuba to be illegal. Gross claimed he didn’t know that, and that he thought only the users of the equipment in Cuba might be in legal peril.

“After my arrest, I was informed by Cuban Government officials that it was illegal in Cuba to distribute anything funded in whole or in part by USAID,” Gross said in an affidavit. “At no point before or during the … Project was I aware or warned that activities contemplated by this USAID and [Development Alternatives Inc.]-sponsored project were crimes in Cuba.”

At his trial in Cuba, Gross called himself a “trusting fool,” and Gross later filed a lawsuit against DAI and USAID. In the lawsuit, Gross claims USAID and DAI “failed to disclose adequately to Mr. Gross the superior knowledge that they had, or should have had, about the material risks that Mr. Gross faced due to his participation in the referenced project.”

Gross also contends that they failed to provide him with “the education and training that was necessary to minimize the risk of harm to him, and failing to call him back from Cuba and/or preclude him from returning there.” DAI reached an undisclosed settlement with Gross. A federal judge dismissed the case against USAID, which Gross’ lawyers are appealing.

While Gross claims he did not know his activities were illegal in Cuba, field reports obtained by the AP show that Gross was at least aware that his mission was risky.

AP, Feb. 13, 2012: One report says a community leader “made it abundantly clear that we are all ‘playing with fire.’ ”

Another time Gross said: “This is very risky business in no uncertain terms.”

And finally: “Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic.”

Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for American and Latino Studies at American University, scoffed at the idea that Gross’ activities were limited to helping the Jewish community access the Internet. The chip brought into Cuba by Gross was “military level” technology, and was brought on behalf of a government group, USAID, that Hershberg said is committed to “promoting regime change” in Cuba.

In a September 2009 report, Gross talked about the program as a “pilot” that could be “expanded to other identified target groups.”

Richard Morris, a Spanish and linguistics professor at Middle Tennessee State University, told us via email, “Alan Gross was not arrested for introducing telecommunications technology to everyday Cubans, but rather for being ‘contracted to work for American intelligence services.’ ” The characterization in quotes comes from Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón.

Rubio’s account of Gross’ activities is “a much simpler explanation than admitting that Gross’ work was, by its nature, threatening to the state monopoly on information,” said Morris, who travels every year to Cuba with students.

Although Cuban President Raul Castro called Gross a spy, U.S. officials insist he was not. For its part, USAID has defended its actions in Cuba — which included a controversial effort to set up a social media app for Cubans called ZunZuneo, a program the AP said was intended to stir unrest in Cuba.

Responding to the AP’s story about ZunZuneo, a USAID spokesman released a statement saying, “USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert.”

As Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson put it, “Gross was not a spy, and Cuba was wrong to treat him like one. But he also was not a naive do-gooder. His activities were at least semi-covert and he took efforts to conceal them.”

— Robert Farley