Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 while working as a subcontractor for the U.S. government, having set up a handful of wi-fi hot spots in a country with some of the world’s most severe internet restrictions. Some reports said he was charged with espionage; in fact he was not charged with anything at all until 14 months into his detention. (He would ultimately spend five years in prison.) When the charge came, Gross now says, “I was accused of being a threat to the integrity and/or independence of the state. Which,” he adds, “is impossible because the state has no integrity.”
Gross’s project was funded through the United States Agency for International Development, which cites democracy promotion as part of its mission. But he says he didn’t go to Cuba with any ideological goal in mind—that his own aim wasn’t to promote democracy or capitalism or “anything other than communications.” In a conviction that brought a prison sentence of 15 years, Cuban authorities called this same activity “a subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the revolution through the use of communications systems out of the government control.”
Government control was the key point, and the way in which Gross’s case, though centered on an American, was emblematic of the regime imposed on Cubans by Fidel Castro. Fidel officially ceded power to his brother the year before Gross’s arrest, but continued to loom over the country’s politics up to and beyond his death last Friday. Raul Castro largely maintains that system of control over the island of roughly 11 million people—from the pervasive surveillance to the arbitrary detentions to restrictions on the internet and much of the economy.