The wife and a lawyer for a U.S. government contractor charged with seeking to undermine the government of Cuba have arrived at a Havana court for the start of his trial.The proceedings against 61-year-old Alan Gross are sure to have a profound impact on U.S.-Cuba relations, particularly if he is found guilty and sentenced to a long jail term for illegally bringing communications equipment into Cuba.
Prosecutors are requesting a 20-year jail term for the Maryland native. Cuba hopes to use the case to focus attention on multimillion dollar U.S.-funded "democracy building" programs that Havana says seek to overthrow the government.
Earlier story is below.
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.
"Neither the State Department nor USAID knew who all of these people were or what they were doing in the name of the US government and with US taxpayer money," he said, adding that oversight was insufficient to tell whether the programs were effective.
He said the contractors themselves designed and evaluated the programs and determined whether they were doing a good job.
"They had the mandate, the money, and political advocates in Congress," he said.
The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the programs with the media, said that "to this day" it is not clear who Gross was working with in Cuba.
Cuban authorities have not spoken publicly about their case against Gross. But a video that surfaced days before the charges were announced indicates prosecutors will likely argue that the USAID programs amount to an attack on the island's sovereignty.
The video features a Cuban Interior Ministry expert saying that Gross was seeking to build communications networks among the Cuban opposition. The expert also indicates that the government plans to use against Gross a statement his company made in his defense shortly after his arrest.
In the statement, DAI president James Boomgard said Gross was not a spy, but acknowledged he was handing out "basic IT equipment such as cell phones and laptops" as part of a U.S.-government backed program.
"He says, 'My man is not a spy. My man is not from the CIA,'" the Interior Ministry official says of Boomgard. "He says, 'This is a man who was there because I have a contract with USAID to promote democracy in Cuba ... to promote political competition, human rights, consensus building and strengthening civil society to help build a democratic government in Cuba.'"
"That is to say, 'He is not in the CIA, no, no, but he is a person I sent to Cuba with a contract to bring down the revolution.'"
Many observers do see a way forward that would get Gross back to his family, and avoid a standoff between Havana and Washington.
As recently as January, a senior U.S. State Department official said she had been given signals by the Cuban government that Gross would be sent home soon following a trial. American officials were taken aback when - a few weeks later - prosecutors said they were seeking a 20-year jail term.
Phil Peters, a longtime Cuba expert who is vice president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said he saw Cuba freeing Gross soon, despite the fact prosecutors are seeking such a stiff sentence.
"The odds are the guy is going to get convicted, that's not hard to predict," he said. "But I don't believe that the Cuban government has an interest in holding him in jail for the long term."
(The Associated Press)