HAVANA, Cuba — If the internet is the new battlefield in the long, simmering standoff between Cuba and the United States, then jailed American contractor Alan Gross is the conflict’s first POW.
The basic facts of his case are not in dispute. Gross, 61, was arrested in December 2009 and has been held at a high-security Cuban prison ever since. Posing as a tourist, he came to Cuba to set up laptop-sized satellites that would deliver unrestricted internet access as part of a broader U.S. government program to spur political change to Havana’s one-party rule.
Though Cuba is the least-wired country in the Americas, it does not allow foreign governments — particularly the United States — to install unlicensed communication equipment on the island. Prosecutors said this month they will charge Gross with “Actions Against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State,” and seek a 20-year prison sentence.
A trial date has not been set, but the Gross case, along with several other web-related developments this month, has offered the best insight yet into the Castro government’s evolving views of the internet, as Cuban authorities cautiously attempt to introduce modern technology while pushing back against U.S. efforts to wield it against them.
As the Gross charges were announced, a video of a purported Cuban intelligence briefing began surfacing on anti-government blogs and websites, laying out Gross’s alleged crimes as well as Cuba’s strategy to counter American plans. Cuban officials have not disputed the video’s authenticity, and several analysts have even suggested the 53-minute briefing may have been leaked deliberately.
In it, a young Cuban intelligence official depicts Gross as “a mercenary,” tasked with carrying out a U.S. plot to establish unsupervised communication networks on the island that could help foment and facilitate an uprising.
“It’s just like the (1961) Bay of Pigs invasion,” the intelligence official claims, “but this guy came with other arms. He didn’t come on a boat and didn’t disembark with a gun in his hand, but it’s the same story.”
The idea, “is to create a technology platform outside the control of Cuban authorities that would permit in some way the free flow of information between Cuban citizens — not any Cuban citizen, but those selected by them, opponents, bloggers, those they have chosen — and between those citizens and the world,” he alleges, drawing comparisons to the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran (the video was allegedly filmed last June, before the popular revolt in Egypt).
“It’s all part of a strategy,” he continues, “if I put the technology platform [in front of you], the people who can generate the conflict are the same ones who are going to report this very conflict abroad.” And if the U.S. furnishes those government opponents with independent internet access, the official explains, Cuban authorities would not be able to shut them down.
Since Gross’s arrest, U.S. officials have characterized him as a kindly development worker who was simply trying to provide Cuba’s small Jewish community with better internet access. They’ve urged Gross’s immediate release, warning that a long prison sentence will ice up the Obama administration’s incipient efforts at improved relations.
“This is a matter of grave importance to us,” said Gloria Berbena, a spokesperson for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. “We have used every available diplomatic channel to call for his release on humanitarian grounds.”
“He should be home with his family now,” she said.
Gross is likely to plead guilty at his trial, then receive a pardon from the Cuban government, according to Western diplomats cited by international news organizations on the island. But others believe Havana may not give up Gross so easily.
Still, the Cuban government’s case against Gross isn’t the only element of the video that has caused a stir. The segment also shows the young Cuban official encouraging his colleagues to embrace 21st-century technology and set aside their fears of social media sites. “Technology by itself is not a threat,” he says. “The threat is what someone who is behind the technology can do.”
"They have their bloggers and we have our bloggers,” he continues. “We will fight to see who is stronger."
That fight is likely to intensify later this year. Cuba has long blamed its web restrictions and abysmal connection speeds on the low-bandwidth satellites links it relies upon, claiming that American trade sanctions have deliberately isolated it from the rest of the world. But a much-anticipated undersea fiber optic cable plugging the island into Venezuela was finally put into place Feb. 9, and it will increase Cuba’s bandwidth by a factor of 3,000 when it becomes operational this summer.
Cuban officials have sought to temper expectations, saying that priority will be given to schools, research centers and other government institutions — not private home use — while insisting that those restrictions aren’t political.
Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Information Jorge Luis Perdomo insisted at a technology conference that "there is no political obstacle" to web access in Cuba, just as the $70 million cable was being completed.
As if to prove the point, the government stopped blocking access to the site of opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez the next day.
However, other anti-Castro sites remain inaccessible from the island.