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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."
From flickr.com/photos/34920308@N07/6902536028/: Cathedral in Havana
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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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