Cuba detains U.S. government contractor

By William Booth and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 13, 2009; A12

MEXICO CITY -- The Cuban government has arrested an American citizen working on contract for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was distributing cellphones and laptop computers to Cuban activists, State Department officials and congressional sources said Saturday.

The contractor, who has not been identified, works for Bethesda-based Development Alternatives. The company said in a statement that it was awarded a government contract last year to help USAID "support the rule of law and human rights, political competition and consensus building" in Cuba.

Consular officers with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the capital, are seeking access to the contractor, who was arrested Dec. 5. The charges have not been made public. Under Cuban law, however, a Cuban citizen or a foreign visitor can be arrested for nearly anything under the claim of "dangerousness."

The detention of an American contractor working for the U.S. government may raise tensions between the Castro brothers' communist government in Cuba and the Obama administration, which has been taking a "go-slow" approach to improving relations with the island.

The new U.S. policy stresses that if Cuba takes concrete steps such as freeing political prisoners and creating more space for opposition, the United States will reciprocate.

A senior Republican congressional aide said the American contractor was being held in a secure facility in Havana.

"It is bizarre they're just holding him and not letting us see him at all," said the aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record. Attempts to reach Cuban government officials to discuss the case were unsuccessful.

Cellphones and laptops are legal in Cuba, though they are new and coveted commodities in a country where the average worker's wage is $15 a month. The Cuban government granted ordinary citizens the right to buy cellphones just last year; they are used mostly for texting, because a 15-minute phone conversation would eat up a day's wages.

Internet use is extremely limited on the island. It is available in expensive hotels, where foreign visitors stay, and at some government facilities, such as universities. Cubans who want to log on often have to give their names to the government. Access to some Web sites is restricted.

A person familiar with the detained American's activity said he was "working with local organizations that were trying to connect with each other and get connected to the Internet and connect with their affinity groups in the U.S."

The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the case, said Cuban authorities were aware of the project. "Why they picked on this situation," the person said, "is a bit of a mystery."

Cuba has a nascent blogging community, led by the popular commentator Yoani Sánchez, who often writes about how she and her husband are followed and harassed by government agents because of her Web posts. Sánchez has repeatedly applied for permission to leave the country to accept journalism awards, so far unsuccessfully.

"Counterrevolutionary activities," which include mild protests and critical writings, carry the risk of censure or arrest. Anti-government graffiti and speech are considered serious crimes.

"It should come as no surprise that the Cuban regime would lock up an American for distributing communications equipment," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), a Cuban American and the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The detention of an American in Cuba is rare. The handful of U.S. citizens behind bars in Cuba are there for crimes such as drug smuggling, said Gloria Berbena, the press officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

"An activity that in any other open society would be legal -- giving away free cellphones -- is in Cuba a crime," said José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas program of Human Rights Watch. The group recently issued a critical report on freedoms in Cuba called "New Castro, Same Cuba," a reference to installing Raúl Castro as president in place of his ailing older brother Fidel.

Human Rights Watch highlighted 40 cases, including that of Ramón Velásquez Toranzo, who was sentenced to three years in prison for "dangerousness" in 2007 after setting out on a peaceful protest march across Cuba.

Vivanco said that the accused in Cuba are often arrested, tried and imprisoned within a day. He said that any solution to the contractor's case would probably be political and that the Cuban government often provokes a negative reaction in the United States just as both countries begin to move toward more dialogue.

"Our prime concern is for the safety, well-being and quick return to the United States of the detained individual," said the contractor's boss, Jim Boomgard, chief executive officer of Development Alternatives.

Sheridan reported from Washington.

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