Friday, February 24, 2012

Senator Leahy on Alan Gross

AP: Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy met Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana and came away with the message that "we have a long way to go" before jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross is released.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Church news

In advance of the Pope’s visit, AP takes a long and interesting look at the Cuban Catholic church and its leader, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

The Herald’s Juan Tamayo interviews three independent voices among Cuban Catholics: a priest, a dissident, and a magazine editor from Pinar del Rio.

Radio Marti’s website reports on the recent return of Catholic Church properties that were confiscated in the 1960’s.

Photos are of the little church in Vinales, wrecked in the 2008 hurricanes, that has been repaired and spruced up and will be re-inaugurated in a ceremony this coming Sunday.  A parish worker told me that aid from Germany made it possible.

More on USAID's m.o.: the SIM card (Updated)

Ernesto Hernandez Busto at Penultimos Dias takes a long look at one of the most interesting nuggets in the Associated Press story about USAID contractor Alan Gross’ modus operandi in Cuba: the fact that he reportedly used a special SIM card available only to government agencies to make his satellite Internet installations less susceptible to detection by Cuban authorities.

This, Ernesto notes, is important because it opens the door to the argument that Gross was engaged in espionage or linked to intelligence agencies. 

Gross was not charged with espionage nor did the the Cuban court link him to intelligence activities.  The court’s sentencia only mentions SIM cards in the very long list of Gross’ seized equipment and accessories that have been duly passed on to Cuba’s communications ministry: three BGANS satellite gizmos with their SIM cards, 13 Blackberries with their SIM cards, and a plastic bag with five SIM cards for telephones.

Nonetheless, Ernesto raises interesting questions about the SIM card issue and has consulted an unnamed expert (whose comments he quotes in English) who doubts the veracity of the AP story regarding the SIM card.  Ernesto also cites AP reporter Desmond Butler standing by his story. 

Considering that Gross’ trial is ended, Cuba knew what he was doing, and USAID insists that there is nothing covert or classified about its operations, I think more information would be helpful here.  USAID’s m.o. is a subject of legitimate public policy debate, of interest to both fans and skeptics of USAID’s activities.  It is strange for the U.S. government to allow it to proceed with abundant information provided by Cuba, some leaked information reported by AP, and only bland generalities from USAID. 

Ernesto’s questions deserve answers, as do others.  Such as whether USAID has a policy about its operatives using private American citizens and organizations as cover, without informing them, for activities that could land them in the same trouble in which Mr. Gross finds himself now. 

On a related note, this article in the Forward suggests that one of the groups that Gross enlisted to carry some of his equipment was the Jewish Federation of Broward County.

Update: A reader sent in the following:

In his attack on the reporting of Desmond Butler of the AP, Ernesto Hernandez Busto argues that the BGANs Gross was deploying were perfectly ordinary, and quotes an anonymous expert who says that only a special cell phone using a military network would have the capability Butler described, and it’s not plausible that Gross had access to such highly classified technology.

This expert is just wrong. There is such a thing as a discrete SIM card that has exactly the capabilities Butler described. It has nothing to do with cell phones or military satellite networks. It fits a regular BGAN terminal, and appears to only be available to government purchasers. See this description (esp. slides 16-18) of how it works in a sales presentation prepared for government agencies. This special SIM card stops the BGAN from reporting its GPS location to the satellite; instead, it reports the location within a 100-300 kilometer radius.   

Hernandez Busto also claims that all Gross was doing was creating a “BGAN Private Network” as described here, but in fact that is something completely different, as a careful reading of the linked page makes clear.

Note the February 20 comment on Penultimos Dias from “anonimo,” who seems to know what he’s talking about:

Los BGANs, cuando se usan, reportan su posición GPS al satélite. Todas las transmisiones de BGANS al satelite y de vuelta son codificadas.
Pero el Pentagono, para estar más seguro aún de que las posiciones físicas de sus unidades que usan BGANs no pueden ser interceptadas y delatadas, hace varios años empezó a usar SIMs “discretos” porque no transmiten las posiciones GPS. Es decir, aunque se lograra interceptar y decodificar una señal BGAN, no se podría saber la posición del aparato.
Ya casi no se usan los SIMs discretos porque al no recibir las posiciones GPS, el satélite no sabe de dónde viene lo que esta recibiendo y no puede ajustar el poder de sus trasmisiones. (Si el satelite sabe que está recibiendo data de posición X, donde sabe que su cono de transmision es débil, puede maniobrar para aumentar el poder de su transmisión.)
El uso de SIM discretas esta muy pero muy restringido a militares, servicio secreto, etc.
Que le hubieran entregado una a Alan Gross, quien se supone es sólo un subcontractor de USAID, sería muy extraño.

Odds and ends

·         Washington  Post: Baltimore-Havana flights will begin in the fall, not next month as originally announced.

·         Cuba’s not-very-visible economy minister Adel Yzquierdo gets an additional title, that of vice president of the Council of Ministers.  Reuters story here.

·         Granma describes an urgent task in Pinar del Rio: protection and restoration of mangroves that protect the coast from encroachment by the sea.

·         Financial Times on La Moneda Cubana, one of many dozens of new private restaurants making a go of it in Havana.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

USAID's m.o. in Cuba (Updated)

AP reporter Desmond Butler obtained five reports on USAID contractor Alan Gross’ travels to Cuba, four written by Gross himself, and wrote a long investigative piece on Gross’ operations in Cuba.  Your tax dollars at work in a kind of operation that is the last thing you would expect to be carried out by USAID.

Update:  A few comments on the AP article, in no particular order.

I remember when the U.S. government solicited bids for projects to provide high-tech or low-tech communications devices and systems to Cubans, back in 2006.  It is not pleasant to see that the result is the arrest of an American citizen.  But it is interesting to see what came out the other end, and astonishing that no one explained to the hapless Mr. Gross that he was going to Cuba, not to Mayberry, Tennessee to contend only with Andy and Goober.

If Mr. Gross reports that he saw Cuban authorities “sniffing” for signals near where he was working, it raises the question of whether they refrained from arresting him so they could watch him operate over the course of a few trips.

As readers have pointed out, it has always been hard to understand what Mr. Gross means when he says he was “duped” and “used,” and now it’s harder still.  With these trip reports it is clear that he knew the risks.

He also spread the risks.  His modus operandi seems to have been to hook up with a Jewish group traveling to Cuba, present himself as a member of a humanitarian group, enlist some members to carry some equipment, and gather it all up once everyone cleared Customs.  In so doing he put those Americans in danger, and if he used the name of a real humanitarian group, he abused that group as well. 

This is dirty pool.  If USAID and its operatives are going to put Americans at risk when they are traveling to Cuba for religious fellowship or humanitarian projects, it owes them a chance to weigh the risks before it uses them for cover.

AP reports that USAID’s policy is that “if asked,” its operatives should state that they are carrying out a U.S. government program.  That’s not good enough.

If USAID is going to continue operations like this, can it have a policy where it takes its own risks, and where it prohibits its operatives from using the name of private American organizations, presenting themselves with fake identities, and abusing the trust of private American citizens?  

USAID doesn’t like the word “covert.”  Good for AP for digging out the National Security Act’s definition:

The U.S. National Security Act defines “covert” as government activities aimed at influencing conditions abroad “where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

AP follows up on its Sunday story with an examination of USAID’s use of clandestine operations in democracy programs.

Here’s a note on all this from Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America who points out that in the end, Gross did not end up harming Cuban national security and the Cuban government would do well to release him on humanitarian grounds.

I still wonder how this all began.  How was it decided that Cuba’s Jewish community needed better Internet access, as opposed to other assistance?  And how was it decided that this was the best way to provide it? 

Finally, the information in the AP report seems to coincide with the information in the sentencia of the Cuban court.

A fine little mess

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa wants Cuba to be invited to the April Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, and he wants like-minded nations to join him in boycotting the event if Havana is not invited.

This forces the United States to play the heavy and say no, Cuba should not be invited, because the “summit process is open only to democratic countries.” 

That stand on principle would have some resonance with the public if the “summit process” had any meaning to anyone, i.e. if the meeting were any more than a series of conversations among heads of state where no negotiations are held or agreements reached.  President Obama doesn’t mind talking to governments with which he disagrees, but in this case election-year considerations may override that principle.  Can’t have a handshake photo with Raul.

Colombia, the host, has to figure a way to smooth things over.  Colombia’s foreign minister traveled to Havana last week to discuss the issue and reported afterward that Cuban officials “told me, obviously, that they’re interested in attending.” 

Cuban media reported on the foreign minister’s visit, noting her meeting with President Raul Castro, saying her visit would give a boost to the two countries’ “satisfactory” bilateral relations and noting Colombia’s opposition to the U.S. embargo.  The summit issue was not covered.

A roundup of all this by Kezia McKeague of the Council of the Americas is here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Happy embargo-versary

If you enjoy celebrating big old failures, the 50th anniversary of the U.S. embargo against Cuba has just passed.  Get yourself some rum and have a ball.

One feature of the embargo has been its changing justifications over time: a response to expropriations, an instrument with which to demand that Cuba break its ties to the Soviet bloc and its projection of military power outside its borders, a tool for pressure for the release of political prisoners.  These days, the honest justification of it on the part of its partisans seems to be that it will one day serve as leverage over a future Cuban government when Fidel and Raul are no longer around.

Meanwhile, more than 300,000 Cuban Americans per year are traveling to an island they still consider in some measure to be home.  Some are just visiting, many are investing at the family level. 

To add another layer of absurdity, consider what would happen if two things happen in Cuba in the next five years: a big move to ethanol production supported by Brazilian technology and capital, which is a matter mainly of political will; and a discovery of oil from the Repsol rig that is now clearly visible from the Malecon.  Cuba, now producing half its energy, could become self-sufficient if not an oil exporter. 

But the embargo would remain, poised to bring the place to its knees.

It’s a good occasion to read this April 1960 State Department memo on “The Decline and Fall of Castro.”  It explains how the embargo and other measures were intended “to weaken the economic life of Cuba” by making “the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Alan Gross "sentencia" summarized

Why did Cuba jail USAID contractor Alan Gross? 

The official Cuban answer has consistently been about Cuban sovereignty and Gross’ conduct that was alleged to have threatened, as the charges against him put it, the “independence and territorial integrity” of Cuba.

If you have wondered what they mean by that, a court document that came to light this month explains in detail what the Cuban government found and what it perceived Gross to be doing. 

In brief, the Cuban court held that Gross was working on a project that he designed, that he described in his own papers as focused on political objectives and contributing to the Bush Administration’s regime change objectives; that he imported and installed three satellite Internet/Wifi systems for Cuba’s Jewish community, never representing himself as working for a U.S. government program; that those communications systems were chosen because they do not operate on the Cuban communications network; that he traveled to Cuba five times in one year, carrying some equipment himself and enlisting unwitting Americans who were traveling to Cuba for religious exchanges to carry the rest; that he was going to be assigned to repair a satellite communications system that another USAID grantee had installed; and that he had a discussion – at Cuba’s Hotel Nacional, of all places – about installing satellite communications systems for Cuba’s Masonic Lodges.

If just half of that is true, the real question becomes: Is there a more surefire scheme for sending an American into Cuba to get arrested?

Regardless of one’s view of Gross’ conduct, USAID programs, Cuba’s reaction, or Cuba’s legal system, this document is an important addition to the discussion. 

After the jump, a summary and comments on it.

Quotable, and very smooth

“It is not possible to make human rights policy as a weapon of political and ideological struggle.  The world must be convinced that all countries of the world should assume their responsibility, ourselves included.  Who casts the first stone without having a glass house?  We have ours in Brazil.  Hence I commit myself to speak of human rights from a multilateral perspective.  I believe this is a commitment of all civilized peoples.  There are aspects that need to be considered.  In fact it is something that we have to improve in the world in general.  We cannot think of human rights as a rock that is cast in one direction only, and not in the other.”

      – Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, in Tuesday’s Granma