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Jailed In Cuba Since 2009, USAID Contractor On Hunger Strike


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Alan Gross is already in frail health after spending more than four years in a Cuban prison. This week, he went on a hunger strike, but ended it after a few days. Mr. Gross is the USAID contractor who was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and accused of espionage. He was working to provide Internet access to Cuba's Jewish community. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Bloomberg View has been reporting on the Alan Gross story, joins us in our studios. Jeff, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: This is the kind of case where people think they know what happened, but maybe they don't. So remind us of why he was arrested and charged.

GOLDBERG: There is money in the USAID budget each year to do democracy promotion, which sounds fine. And it is fine, except that the Cuban government interprets democracy promotion as regime change. Alan Gross is a contractor for AID, who works on Internet related issues, who was sent into Cuba ostensibly to bring communications equipment to Cuba's very, very small Jewish community. He went four times. On his fifth visit, he was arrested. And today, he sits in a Cuban military hospital. He's 64 years old. And he's waiting for a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations that might lead to his release.

SIMON: And he went on the hunger strike to call attention to it or...

GOLDBERG: He went on the hunger strike, he says, out of frustration with another USAID program, which was just revealed about a week ago or so - the setting up of the so-called Cuban Twitter, alternative network for instant messaging in Cuba. It was done in a semi-subterfuge-y kind of way. And so Alan Gross's position and his lawyer's position is, if the Cuban government continues to feel as if the United States is trying to destabilize the regime, then it would make Alan Gross's position even more difficult. And his family, over the course of this week, begged him to stop his hunger strike. He threatens to do one again if there's no forward motion on his case.

SIMON: The Cubans reportedly want to trade him for some people...


SIMON: ...That the U.S. has...


SIMON: ...In American jails, right?

GOLDBERG: There's a fairly simple trade that could be executed here. We have, in our prisons - they're referred to as the Cuban Five, but two have already been released. They were five Cuban spies sent to America, the Cubans say, to spy on right-wing, Cuban dissident groups. The United States alleges that it was more than just that. They are heroes or official heroes of the regime. There are billboards everywhere demanding the release of the Cuban Five. And the Cuban foreign minister has said that he will meet, without precondition, American representatives anywhere at any time to discuss this case. And it's abundantly clear to me, after spending a week talking to people in the government, that Alan Gross would get out of jail if these three spies were sent back to Cuba.

SIMON: Why do you think the Obama administration is opposed to a trade like this?

GOLDBERG: There are couple of things going on. The first is that they don't believe that there's symmetry. These Cuban Five are actual spies. The American position is that Alan Gross was a USAID humanitarian contractor trying to bring Internet access to people. The other issue, of course, is that there is a constituency on Capitol Hill that is very hard-line on Cuba and doesn't want to do any business whatsoever with that government, including trading one prisoner for another set of prisoners.

SIMON: Jeff, recognizing that there's an actual human life...


SIMON: ...Involved here, does this case say anything about USAID?

GOLDBERG: This case, like the Cuban Twitter case, says about USAID, that they should not be involved in surreptitious activities. If they want to be involved in setting up secret telecom networks, probably leave that kind of business to the CIA. Alan Gross did not even speak Spanish.

SIMON: Yeah.

GOLDBERG: I mean, they sent a guy who had no experience doing this kind of work, did not know the language. And they sent him with equipment that the Cuban communist regime considers illegal. So this was not a recipe for success. It was a recipe for disaster.

SIMON: Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Bloomberg View. Thanks so much.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.