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One Year On for Alan Gross

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The detention of Alan Gross shows no public sign of resolution.

P. J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, marked the one year anniversary of his arrest with the same old disingenuous spin characterizing Alan as:

a committed international development worker who was arrested by Cuban authorities for his activities, dedicated to helping the Jewish community in Havana connect with other Jewish communities throughout the world....

MR. CROWLEY: He is a contractor and he was trying to help connect communities in Havana to the rest of the world. And obviously, we think that is important for the development of civil society in Cuba.

QUESTION: P.J., what --

QUESTION: So the communications devices that have been mentioned --

MR. CROWLEY: Connecting to the internet.

QUESTION: The internet?

MR. CROWLEY: These are not revolutionary kinds of technology.

QUESTION: When the Secretary hosted Jewish groups several months ago and talked about this, she asked them to make appeals to the Cubans. Are you aware if any of them have?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I think we - that's correct. And I think there have been some contacts. I mean, it's a broad-based community. I know there have been some suggestions publicly that, well, some groups know about him; some groups don't know about him. That really is beside the point.

Presumably what Crowley was trying to minimize as "beside the point" is an AP story in which the leaders of the principal Jewish organizations in Cuba contradict his version:

Adela Dworin, president of Havana's Temple Beth Shalom and Cuba's largest Jewish organization, the Jewish Community House, told The Associated Press on Wednesday it's possible Gross came to the center as one of "hundreds" of foreign visitors it receives each year. But she said she doesn't remember meeting him and he certainly was not doing any work with her group.

Dr. Mayra Levy, president of the Hebrew Sephardic Center of Cuba, said the same thing: "I never saw him. He never came here."

Cuba's tightly knit Jewish community is believed to number about 1,500 people, most of whom live in Havana and belong to one of those two groups. While it is possible Gross was working with one of the other Jewish groups scattered across the island, the other organizations represent very small numbers of people.

"As far as I know, none of the three synagogues (in Havana) authorized any such activity," Dworin said.

Gross' wife, Judy, has denied that her husband was a spy and says he is a veteran development worker who was helping members of Cuba's Jewish community use the Internet to stay in contact with each other and with similar groups abroad. Communications equipment he brought with him was intended for humanitarian purposes, not for use by the dissident community, she said.

Dworin said many visitors bring donations - medicine for a community pharmacy, books, DVDs, computer games, food for religious festivals - but she stressed that the group would not accept any contraband equipment, or even have need for it.

"We have all the necessary media to communicate with the entire Jewish world," Dworin said. "We are able to communicate freely."

"We respect the laws of the country where we were born," she added.

Crowley is right that the equipment Alan is suspected of distributing, a laptop size BGAN two way satellite link, is not revolutionary. But it is high tech, encryptable, illegal in Cuba, expensive and guaranteed to create suspicion among national security agencies in most countries. (See Tracey Eaton's post showing an on line BGAN ad, and my comment here.)

It is normal for countries to try to influence each others' population, especially when they are neighbors, and to support outreach, educational and training programs through agencies like USAID. Cuban government and party officials have certainly maintained legitimate links with sympathetic Americans since the victory of the revolution. US government and political groups should be able to do the same in Cuba.

However, when a relationship is asymmetrical in terms of money and power and one side is engaged in overt economic warfare against the other and publicly aspires to overturn its economic and political system, normal foreign government to domestic civil society relationships are impossible. US friends in Cuba are imprisoned or intimidated. Cuba's friends in the US are marginalized (and in the past were killed by Cuban American extremists).

President Obama has not faced up to the fundamental issue of whether the US is prepared to deal with Cuba with the mutual respect he aspires to in other parts of the world, and which characterizes our productive involvement with Vietnam and China, or will remain enmeshed in the paradigm of regime change.

Perhaps he knows better but is not prepared to pay the political cost of putting national interest above short term political interest by taking on the bitter enders in the exile community. Ironically once he does so, they will lose much of their power.

Non-tourist travel, USAID programs and Alan Gross are sadly victims of his indecision or caution.