In the Zamora neighbourhood, next to the Carlos J. Finlay military hospital, in the Marianao Council area, in Eastern Havana, many of the neighbours don’t know anything about the background of Allan Gross, the US contractor, who is stuck there.
It’s a poor district, with little houses, dusty streets and broken pavements. The midday heat finds it deserted. Not even the street dogs can bring themselves to walk over the hot asphalt.
People there take shelter from the mid-day sun inside their houses, or, inside a bare private cafe, put together in a house entrance hall, they talk about the latest TV serial, José Dariel Abreuthe’s 31st home run with the Chicago White Sox, or Barcelona’s next sign-ups.
Around here is where you find out about the latest violent crime which happened the previous night and, if the person you are talking to trusts you, he’ll take you round to the house where one of the neighbours will discreetly sell you some trashy industrial bits and pieces and Chinese cell phones.
People don’t know Alan Gross, who is kept in a cell in the hospital, just a stone’s throw from the neighbourhood. As far as Ernesto, one of the neighbourhood kids, is concerned, he has heard the name somewhere. “He’s the gringo who they locked up for spying in Cuba”, he says, but he doesn’t know any details of the case. Another kid, who shows off about being well-informed, tells some of the details:
“I found out on the antenna that the American has staged a hunger strike and he says that, dead or alive, he’s going to leave this year (the antenna is an illegal construction — usually made of a metal tray and some Coke cans — and is used as a communication medium in many poor Cuban poor neighbourhoods). I don’t know why Obama doesn’t exchange him for the “three heroes” (Castro spies in jail in the States).
That is what the Cuban man-in-the-street — many of them — know about Gross, the contractor. A spy who came from the north to subvert things on the island.
Not many of them know what it was that he tried to bring into the country. And, when they know that Alan Gross had with him in his briefcases and backpacks two iPods, eleven Blackberrys, three MacBooks, six 500GB discs, three BGAN satellite phones, among other things that Castro’s government considers “illegal,” they look a bit stupid.
“But they sell all this stuff on Revolico (an on-line site condemned by the government). What was the Yank up to, setting up a spy ring with commercial toys,” is what Arnold says, smiling (he is the owner of a little workshop that fixes punctures on your bike or car).
The crime that the olive green State accused him of: “assembling parallel networks to gain illegal access to the internet,” is only an offence in countries with eccentric laws like Cuba or North Korea.
The official media, sporadically offer brief comments, edited in a cleaned-up kind of style, by the hacks at the Foreign Relations Department, who disinform, rather than inform.
People hear about it in the news on the radio and television and it is the main news item in the newspaper Granma. And it all backs up the Cubans’ opinion that Alan Gross was caught carrying out espionage.
Cuba is a nation that scatterbrained foreigners do not know. There are two currencies and the one which is worth more is not the one they pay to workers.
The press assures us that five decades ago they “got rid of prostitution and other capitalist scourges”, but an elderly foreigner on a beach receives more sexual proposals than Brad Pitt.
In order to understand the story put together by the Havana government’s communication experts, we need to have in mind one of its key features: from 1959, the United States is the public enemy number one.
Everything bad stems from that. Six hundred supposed attempts on Fidel Castro’s life: from planning to assassinate him by a bullet through the temple, to injecting him with a strong poison which would make his beard fall off.
The eleven Presidents who have occupied the White House during Castro’s 55 years are far from being angels. They have hatched attacks, subversions, and assaults on the first Castro. But the regime exaggerates them.
In that context, Alan Gross was a useful pawn for the island’s special services. Gross visited Cuba four times with the idea of giving unrestricted internet access to the small local Jewish community.
On December 3, 2009 the US contractor was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Cuban tribunal. Gross was not the “stupid innocent taken in by USAID,” as they said at his trial.
He was aware of the risk he was running bringing in information equipment into a totalitarian nation, where parallel communication is a crime against the state.
According to a 2012 article from the AP agency, the reports about his trip indicate that Gross knew his activities were illegal, and he was afraid of the consequences, including possibly being expelled from the country. One of the documents confirms that one of the community’s leaders “made it absolutely clear that we are playing with fire.”
On another occasion, Gross commented “There is no doubt that this is a very dangerous business. It would be catastrophic if they detected the satellite signals.”
It would be possible to appeal to Raúl Castro’s government’s better nature, asking that they set free an unwell 65-year-old man, who is mentally “out of it,” following the death of his mother the previous 18th of June in Texas.
But the criollo (Cuban) autocracy in playing its own game with the USAID contractor. There are still three spies from the Wasp network locked up in US jails, two of them on life sentences.
Alan Gross was the perfect pretext for a negotiation which the Obama administration finds morally unacceptable, as it would place the elderly Jew on the same level as the Cuban spies.
Gross is an authentic laboratory guinea pig, stuck between the United States’ ambiguous politics and Castro’s attempts to get his agents back home. An exchange which the White House is unwilling to accept.
Photo: Alan Gross (b. New York, 1949), before his detention, and now, although he is probably thinner and weaker after his last hunger strike and his depression over his mother’s death last June 18th. Taken from The Cuban History.
Translated by GH
10 August 2014