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Cuba's imprisonment of an American is a rebuke to Obama

Friday, January 22, 2010; A20

A FRIEND of Alan P. Gross, the veteran development consultant from Potomac who has been jailed without charge in Cuba, says that Mr. Gross's mistake may have been "not seeing anything wrong with what he was doing." If so, we can sympathize. Mr. Gross was in Cuba to help several Jewish community groups gain access to the Internet, so that they could use sites such as Wikipedia and communicate with each other and with Jewish organizations abroad, according to his employer, Bethesda-based Development Alternatives Inc., and other sources familiar with his work. He reportedly supplied the groups with laptops and satellite equipment for Internet connections.

For this the 60-year-old contractor was arrested Dec. 4 and has been held ever since by Cuba's communist regime, which has accused him of conducting an espionage operation. Only in the ancient, crumbling regime of the Castro brothers could this ridiculous charge be leveled. That's because Cuba is virtually alone, even among authoritarian countries, in trying to prevent most of its population from using the Internet even for nonpolitical purposes.

A State Department democracy program has tried to help Cubans join the 21st century by distributing laptops and cellphones and providing satellite Internet connections. Mr. Gross, who has worked in more than 50 countries during the past 25 years, was assisting with this effort. Yet for this, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón, another of the regime's dinosaurs, connected Mr. Gross to "agents, torturers and spies that are contracted as part of the privatization of war," adding "this is a man who was contracted to do work for American intelligence services."

It's worth noting that Mr. Gross's arrest came just two weeks after President Obama responded by e-mail to questions from Cuba's renowned blogger, Yoani Sánchez. Mr. Obama praised Ms. Sánchez for her efforts to "empower fellow Cubans to express themselves through the use of technology." He also said that he was waiting for some kind of reciprocation for the several conciliatory gestures he has made to the Castro regime, including an easing of travel restrictions.

Havana's answer has been the arrest and continued imprisonment of Mr. Gross. For the Obama administration, the message is crystal-clear: Fidel and Raúl Castro have no interest in easing repression or in improving relations with the United States. For Congress, which is considering legislation authorizing another liberalization of travel restrictions, the correct response is also obvious: Cuba should be told that no action will be considered while Mr. Gross remains in prison.

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