Did USAID play with fire in Cuba?

    Mark Lopes (center), USAID deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean during a visit in Paraguay. Photo by: Embajada de EEUU en Paraguay / CC BY

    When contractor Alan Gross was on trial in Cuba for “Acts Against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State,” he reportedly said he was a “trusting fool” who was used and deceived by U.S. development firm DAI. But an Associated Press review of his trip reports show Gross was complicit in the act.

    Gross’ official trip reports indicated the contractor asked help from American Jews to “bring in electronic equipment a piece at a time” to Cuba. He gave instructions for the electronics to be packed inside hand-carry luggage to avoid detection. In one of his reports, a community leader was allegedly said they are all “playing with fire.”

    Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year for “seeking to undermine the integrity and independence of Cuba.” USAID awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to U.S. development firm DAI, which then subcontracted to Gross’ nonprofit, Joint Business Development Center, Inc. The purpose? Break Cuba’s information blockade by “technological outreach through phone banks, satellite Internet and cell phones.”

    USAID has said its contractors do not perform covert work, but act “discreetly” to ensure their safety. Mark Lopes, USAID deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, further stressed the agency’s democracy programs in Cuba are not about changing a regime.

    “That’s for the Cuban people to decide, and we believe they should be afforded that choice,” Lopes, a Devex DC International Development Leader honoree, told The Associated Press.

    But Gross’ deed — “smuggling” communications equipment to the country and setting up “uncensored” satellite Internet service in a small Jewish community — was not viewed by Cuban authorities as, in the words of USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, democracy promotion. Cuban authorities do not allow Internet access in the country, saying it undermines authoritarian governments that control the flow of information to their people.

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    About the author

    • Ravelo jennylei

      Jenny Lei Ravelo

      Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.