Fri, Mar 04, 2011 - Page 7 News List

American faces Cuba trial today

DEAL OR NO DEAL?Alan Gross, a contractor for USAID, faces a possible 20-year sentence. There are hopes, however, that a political solution could set him free

Reuters, HAVANA

A US aid contractor caught up in one of the world’s last Cold War conflicts goes on trial on today for crimes against the Cuban state in a case that could put him in prison for 20 years and further damage US-Cuba relations.

Alan Gross, 61, who already has spent 15 months in jail, is accused of illegally importing satellite communications equipment under a US program outlawed in the Caribbean country.

A three-person panel will hear his case, which like most Cuban trials is expected to last only a day or two.

The case could set back US-Cuba relations for years if Cuba decides to make an example of Gross and lock him away for years. However, some observers believe a political solution has been or will be reached that will allow Gross to go free soon.

His wife, Judy Gross, has pleaded with Cuba to release him for humanitarian reasons because their 26-year-old daughter and Alan Gross’ 88-year-old mother are battling cancer. She has also said her husband’s health is deteriorating in prison.

The US has said Gross, a longtime development worker who was in Cuba on a tourist visa, was setting up improved Internet access for Jewish groups and insists that he committed no crimes.

He was a contractor for a US Agency for International Development (USAID) program begun by former US president George W. Bush’s administration to promote political change in Cuba.

Gross will be defended by Cuban lawyer Nuris Pinero, who is well known in Cuba for participating in the defense of five Cuban agents jailed in the US since 1998.

Some believe that Pinero’s presence hints at Cuba’s desire to swap Gross for the agents, who were linked to a 1996 shootdown of two US private planes by Cuban military jets.

Pinero likely will “portray Gross as a dupe of US intelligence rather than someone with intent to damage the Cuban state,” said Miami-based attorney Timothy Ashby, a former US Department of Commerce specialist on Cuba.

Gross is the first American to be charged under a Cuban law that prohibits “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” which puts him in a precarious situation with a government intent on stopping US interference.

For Cuba, the case is an opportunity to dissuade others from working in the controversial US programs, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba expert at the University of Denver.

“Nobody after Gross will be able to say they ran the risk of sentences up to 20 years without knowing it,” he said.

Goodwill may be in short supply among Cuban leaders, who consistently and harshly express their frustration at lack of change in US policy under US President Barack Obama.

Obama has taken modest steps to improve relations by easing the long-standing US trade embargo against the country, but Cubans say Obama has done too little to end five decades of hostility.

US activities in Cuba may be on trial in the case as much as Gross.

In the past few days, Cuba has revealed with great fanfare two government agents who infiltrated two of Cuba’s best-known dissident groups — the Ladies in White and the Cuban Commission of Human Rights — for years.

They have talked at length about US backing for dissidents, who they said were in it for the money that flowed from Washington and Cuban exile groups in Miami.

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