Our Man in Havana, or, the Strange Case of Alan Gross

It's quite a weird story, the arrest and conviction of an American government contractor, Alan Gross, by Cuban authorities for the crime of "undermining the integrity" of the state, and it's just gotten weirder, thanks to the investigative work of the AP's Desmond Butler. Gross is an American Jew who was sent to Cuba by a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded contractor to supply Cuba's tiny Jewish community with communications equipment. The ostensible purpose of this mission was to help connect the 1,500 or so Jews still in Cuba with their brethren outside the country. The Cubans suspect something far more dastardly. The truth is.... not entirely clear.

Read Butler's whole report, which appears to prove that Gross was not the "trusting fool" he portrayed himself to be, but that instead he knew the dangers of smuggling in advanced communications equipment into a closed, Communist-run country. Nevertheless, it's fairly obvious, at least to me, that the Cubans should release Gross on humanitarian grounds. Whether or not Gross understood the danger, Butler makes it clear that this is not Jason Bourne we're talking about here. Of course, the Cubans are interested in seeing the so-called "Cuban Five" released on humanitarian grounds, so the two countries are at an impasse (a sixty-year-old impasse, in fact.)

 Here are three observations about the Gross case:
1) In general, it's a fine idea for the United States to advocate for freedom in un-free countries.
2) In general, it's a bad idea to have USAID contractors carting around sensitive communications equipment in countries aligned against the U.S. that don't share our particular free-speech sensitivities. Better to leave that work to the CIA. Even better would be to end the American travel ban and embargo on Cuba, which would allow Cubans to meet ordinary Americans (and play with their technology!) and come to understand the superiority of openness.
3) This AID-funded mission put the Jews of Cuba in a bad spot. I would argue for such missions if the Jews of a given country were either persecuted or cut off from the world, but the Jews of Cuba are neither. In fact, the Jews of Cuba are probably more wired to the rest of the world than their non-Jewish compatriots, not only because their synagogue have Internet connections, but because they receive delegations of Jews from the U.S., Canada, Mexico and elsewhere almost weekly. When I was in Havana in 2010, the president of the Jewish community, Adela Dworin complained to me that she has a warehouse brimming over with cans of gefilte fish brought by well-meaning Jewish delegations. And there is no anti-Semitism to speak of in Cuba. I don't know anyone who disagrees with this basic assertion (and I didn't just take Fidel's word for it.) So Gross's mission, on many levels, was ill-advised, and, given its outcome, tragic.  

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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