Trial against US contractor starts in Cuba
Friday, March 4, 2011; 1:56 AM
HAVANA -- A U.S. government contractor was going on trial in Cuba on Friday in a case sure to have a profound impact on relations between the Cold War enemies.
Alan Gross faces a possible 20-year sentence for "acts against the integrity and independence" of Cuba. The 61-year-old Maryland native was working for the Bethesda-based Development Associates International on a USAID-program that promotes democracy when he was arrested in December 2009.
His family, and U.S. and company officials, say he was bringing communications equipment to Cuba's 1,500-strong Jewish community. Cuban Jewish groups deny having anything to do with him.
Gross's U.S.-based family lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, flew to Havana on Thursday in order to attend the proceedings, and he had a Cuban lawyer representing him as well. His wife, Judy, has been told she can attend the trial as well, though officials would not say whether she would.
The trial at a courthouse in Havana is expected to be over in a day or two, with a verdict announced immediately thereafter. Sentencing, should Gross be convicted, would likely come about two weeks later.
"We hope it will be resolved so that Mr. Gross can return home to the United States," State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said from Washington. "He has been in prison for too long."
Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, said consular representatives last met with Gross on Tuesday. She said consular officials have been told they can attend the trial as well.
The proceedings offer Cuba a chance to highlight Washington-backed democracy-building efforts like the one Gross was working on, which Havana says are designed to topple the government.
Washington spends more than $40 million a year on the programs, with USAID controlling most of that and doling out the work to subcontractors.
Development Associates International, or DAI, was awarded a $4.5 million contract for the program in which Gross was involved, and Gross reportedly was paid more than a half-million dollars himself, despite the fact he spoke little Spanish and had no history working in Cuba. Gross traveled to the island several times over a short period on a tourist visa, apparently raising Cuban suspicions.
The programs have also been criticized repeatedly in congressional reports as being wasteful and ineffective. In March 2010, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, of California - both longtime critics of Washington's 48-year trade embargo on Cuba - temporarily held up new funding in the wake of Gross' arrest. The money has begun flowing again, though U.S. officials say DAI is no longer part of the program.
A senior congressional aide with knowledge of the USAID programs told The Associated Press the Cuba effort - which was ramped up under the Bush Administration with the goal of promoting "regime change" on the island - was on autopilot by the time President Barack Obama took office.