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Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes

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In a dramatic segment on CBS News’ 60 Minutes titled “The Last Prisoner of the Cold War,” former United States Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor Alan Gross tells of horrifying experiences in captivity: “They threatened to hang me, they threatened to pull out my fingernails, they said I’d never see the light of day.”

Gross portrays a harrowing ordeal. He purports to have feared for his safety and his life, as if he was chained in a medieval dungeon at the whims of an arbitrary monarch. This description likely sounds credible to many Americans who view the Cuban government as their own government and media have portrayed it for the last 55 years: a totalitarian dictatorship with no respect for human rights or the rule of law.

The opportunistic Gross, who earned more than $500,000 from his work for USAID, undoubtedly understands that he could cash in on the American public’s preconceptions of Cuba by dramatizing his experience there. Perhaps this occurred to Gross during his imprisonment, when he told a second cousin that “when he comes back he’s going to have a big book deal.” One might even venture to guess his 60 Minutes interview might be an audition for such a pay day.

Such nightmarish conditions have certainly been documented in Cuba. Whistleblowers have described “sexual abuse by medical personnel, torture by other medical personnel, brutal beatings out of frustration, fear, and retribution … torturous shackling, positional torture” and other practices – in Guantanamo Bay, by U.S. military personnel on detainees kidnapped and held indefinitely without charges or due process.

In the rest of Cuba, which is governed by the Revolutionary regime, such stories are virtually unheard of. Professor and author Salim Lamrani compared human rights reports among Latin American countries and found many credible accusations of torture, but for Cuba he observed: “Not a single case of torture against prisoners is noted by Amnesty International. It has to be emphasised that all of all the reports by Amnesty about the countries of Latin America, the report on Cuba is by far the least condemnatory.”

“Since the year 1959, there has not been one single case of extra-judicial execution, enforced disappearance or torture,” stated Maria Esther Reus, Minister of Justice of the Republic of Cuba, in the Cuban government’s presentation to the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of the U.N. Human Rights Council. “The prison system constitutes an example of Cuba’s humanism. Cuba has developed programmes that are directed towards transforming prisons into schools. The goal is to ensure that human beings who have served their sentences are fully reintegrated into society.”

While the latest Amnesty report on Cuba notes that the government has not granted permission for a visit by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Cuba is far from alone.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur himself noted in his latest report that the U.S. government had not allowed him access to the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Additionally, he has not been granted access to visit U.S. federal and state prisons. He did not mention the Cuban government at all in the report.

Gross’s Covert Mission

Narrating the 60 Minutes segment, Scott Pelley says, “Gross was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID is America’s charity, delivering aid all around the world. But in Cuba its mission was different. USAID asked Gross to set up independent internet connections for the Jewish community. Only five percent of Cubans were online. But bypassing government censorship was illegal.”

Actually, according to the World Bank, 14.3 percent of Cubans had internet access in 2009  when Gross was imprisoned. This number has more than doubled over the last six years as the Cuban government has expanded internet access through programs such as public WiFi zones. Of course, this was done independently without any help from the U.S. government or subcontractors like Gross working on their behalf.

Pelley’s claim that Gross’s mission was merely to help the Jewish community in Cuba obtain internet access is easily debunked. During each of his five trips to Cuba, Gross traveled under a tourist visa and represented himself as a member of a Jewish humanitarian group, rather than an agent of the U.S. government. Jewish leaders in Cuba said they already had access to the internet, and were not aware of Gross’s connections to the U.S. government.

An Associated Press investigation discovered that Gross was well aware the misrepresentation of his activities in the country put him at serious risk. The AP quotes Gross saying that “(t)his is very risky business in no uncertain terms,” and “(d)etection of satellite signals will be catastrophic.”

Gross’s employer, Development Alternative, Inc. (DAI), had received a $28 million contract from USAID to carry out a democracy project in 2008. Tracey Eaton writes in his Along the Malecón blog that “Gross said in court documents he was coordinating some of his activities with the Pan American Development Foundation, or PADF, another organization that had received U.S. government funds to try to hasten Cuba’s transition to democracy.”

In a memo to DAI, Gross wrote that the “ICTs Para la Isla pilot project” was designed to “lay a practical groundwork (emphasis in original) that will facilitate and enable the better management of larger-scale and more comprehensive transition-to-democracy initiatives.” Therefore, Gross’s mission was clearly political, rather than humanitarian. His professed mission to help Jewish groups was merely a cover for his clandestine activities on behalf of a government whose official policy for more than half a century has been the replacement of the Revolutionary government in Cuba.

Gross was bringing into the country highly sophisticated computer equipment including satellite phones and a mobile phone chip to disguise satellite signals. Cuban law prohibits importing such equipment without legal authorization.

60 Minutes’ claim that “Cuban authorities locked (Gross) up for helping its citizens get unrestricted Internet access” is at best a vast oversimplification, if not an outright fabrication. In reality, Gross was convicted under Cuba’s Article 11 of Law 88, “Protection of National and Economic Independence.”

The law stipulates imprisonment of 3 to 8 years for anyone who “directly or through a third party, receives, distributes or participates in the distribution by financial means, materials or of another nature, proceeds of the Government of the United States, its agencies, dependencies, representatives, functionaries or other private entities.”

As Lamrani points out, “(t)his severity is not unique to Cuban legislation. US law prescribes similar penalties for this type of crime. The Foreign Agents Registration Act prescribes that any un-registered agent ‘who requests, collects, supplies or spends contributions, loans, money or any valuable object in his own interest’ may be liable to a sentence of five years in prison.”

Gross’s Detainment and Treatment By Cuban Authorities

Gross was held not in a regular prison but in a military hospital for the duration of his detainment. Cuban authorities not only took pains to ensure Gross was granted appropriate medical care, but were extremely accommodating to allow him time with his wife Judy.

It seems unlikely that Gross was abused or mistreated while serving his sentence. According to the Associated Press, Gross’s lawyer Jared Genser said Judy “arrived in Cuba on Sept. 5 (2012) and was allowed to visit her husband on four days, three at the military hospital and once at a guarded home near the capital. He said there is no sign that Gross is being ill-treated.” He also told the AP “(Gross) is being treated fine.”

Gross, who suffered from arthritis, lost significant weight while held in confinement and developed a mass in his shoulder. He was treated by Cuban medical staff, and there is no evidence poor conditions contributed to his medical issues.

New York rabbi and gastroenterologist Elie Abadie was allowed to visit Gross in the military hospital, where he determined “through the exam he personally performed and also through the extensive information supplied by the team of Cuban doctors who have attended (Gross)” that Gross was in a good state of health.

Gross petitioned to see his mother before she passed away from cancer, but as Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Josefina Vidal noted: “neither the Cuban penitentiary system nor the U.S. penitentiary system provide the possibility for inmates to travel abroad, no matter the reason.” The week after his mother died, Gross’s wife was allowed to visit him again in Cuba.

The Obama Administration’s Rejection of Cuba’s Humanitarian Proposal

In early 2014, Gross began a hunger strike because of what he called “mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments … because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal.” He ended his hunger strike a week later, stating he would not resume his protest “when both governments show more concern for human beings and less malice toward each other.”

Despite Gross assigning blame to both governments, there is ample evidence that the Cuban government made much more than a reasonable effort to resolve his case, while it was the U.S. government – alone – that refused do so.

Two years earlier in 2012, the highest ranking Cuban diplomat in Washington, Jorge Bolaños, had proposed a prisoner swap of Gross for the Cuban Five (more on them shortly). Bolaños expressed his government’s desire to “find a humanitarian solution to the case on a reciprocal basis.” But the Obama administration flatly said no, and continued to unilaterally demand Gross’s release without engaging the Cuban government on their offer.

On Dec. 17, 2014, the negotiated solution that freed Gross was the exact same deal the Cuban government had proposed three years earlier. It bears repeating that this offer was on the table all along and could have been agreed to by the Obama administration at any time.

If the agreement was fair last December, why was it not fair when it was first offered three years before? The U.S. government alone holds the blame – with Obama, as the head of his administration, owning the lion’s share – for rejecting a clearly reasonable offer that resulted in Gross remaining detained unnecessarily for two and a half extra years.

Without any controversy, the U.S. government could have secured his release before he developed health complications, before his mother died, and before he began his hunger strike. The U.S. government obstinately refused, continuously, for three years to even consider a deal that later appeared to be a no-brainer for both sides.

Faulting both governments for the delay in obtaining Gross’s release is asinine historical revisionism. It is merely an unmerited attempt to create a fictional balance based on the assumption that the U.S. government in its righteousness must be justified in its quarrels with other governments.

The Cuban Five

One cannot discuss the case of Alan Gross without at the same time discussing the aforementioned Cuban Five, who Gross was eventually swapped for. Unlike Gross, who was acting as a mercenary assisting the U.S. government carry out covert political operations, the members of the Cuban Five were fighting a very real threat of terrorism against the Cuban people emanating from the United States. Their operation was not in any way politically subversive, and did not interfere with the U.S. government’s sovereignty.

They were in Florida to infiltrate terrorist organizations and disrupt plots these groups were planning on Cuban territory. Thousands of Cubans have been killed by contra-revolutionary terrorism since 1959 by groups who enjoy safe haven inside the United States, including 73 people whose plane was blown up over the Caribbean in 1978 and an Italian man killed in a restaurant bombing in Havana in 1997. As author Stephen Kimber writes, if the roles were reversed and the Cuban Five were working for the U.S. government, they “would be American heroes.”

The Five – as they are known in their home country – were convicted on trumped up conspiracy charges. The group’s leader Gerardo Hernández was convicted on the most outrageous, unfounded charge of conspiracy to commit murder. He received two life sentences plus fifteen years.

By any objective comparison, the conditions the Cuban Five faced in confinement were far worse than those of Gross. Each member of the Five was held in solitary confinement for 17 months prior to trial. They spent nearly three years without being able to communicate with each other or their families. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2005 that “the depravation of liberty of these five persons” was “arbitrary.”

Olga, the wife of René González, and Adriana, the wife of Hernández, were denied visas to visit their husbands for 10 years, until after the Cuban government allowed Judy Gross to visit her husband. The U.S. government had previously deemed the Cuban wives “a threat to the stability and national security of the United States.”

Amnesty International stated its concern “that such a blanket or permanent bar on visits with their wives constitutes additional punishment and is contrary to international standards for the humane treatment of prisoners and states’ obligation to protect family life.”

González, the first member of the group to be paroled, was freed after 13 years. The three members of the Five who were released in December 2014 had spent more than 16 years in prison. That is, more than three times longer than Gross.

Needless to say, 60 Minutes does not make this comparison between Gross and the Cuban Five. But 60 Minutes – a standard bearer of American journalism – does achieve an important function of the American Free Press: demonizing official enemies while keeping the microscope away from one’s own government, lest any inconvenient analysis might raise doubts about their inherent superiority and benevolence.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. You can follow him on twitter.

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