Cuba Detains Sneaky US Contractor Who Was Distributing Electronics
The US contractor works for Development Alternatives Inc. in Bethesda, MD. The company’s website describes the breadth of its activities, saying, “We help hillside farmers raise their incomes in Haiti, strengthen the credit system for Moroccan entrepreneurs, harmonize natural resource use in the Philippines, mitigate conflict in Liberia, and foster responsive local governments in Serbia.”
DAI activities in these countries only increase my suspicion about what the contractor was doing in Cuba.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
December 12, 2009
Cuba Detains a U.S. Contractor Who Was Distributing Electronics
By MARC LACEY and GINGER THOMPSON
HAVANA — A United States government contract worker, who was distributing cellphones, laptops and other communications equipment in Cuba on behalf of the Obama administration, has been detained by the authorities here, American officials said Friday.
The officials said the contractor, who works for a company based in the Washington suburbs, was detained Dec. 5. They said the United States Interests Section in Havana was awaiting Cuba’s response to a request for consular access to the man, who was not identified.
The detention and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it threaten to reignite tensions between the countries at a time when both had promised to open new channels of engagement. American officials said they were encouraged that the Cubans had not publicized the detention, and they said they were hopeful that he might be quietly released.
Cuba has allowed more citizens than ever to buy cellphones and computers, but even the limited access to digital technology that is available has created problems for the government. Cuban officials have shown particular concern about Yoani Sánchez, a prominent government critic who keeps in touch with thousands of followers with a blog and a Twitter account.
Recently, the Cuban government denied Ms. Sánchez a visa to accept a prestigious journalism award in New York. President Obama has also made a guest appearance on her blog, sending written answers to questions she submitted to him.
American programs to promote democracy in Cuba have also been the focus of intense debate in the United States. A 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office found that nearly all of the $74 million that the United States Agency for International Development spent on contracts to foster democracy in Cuba over the previous decade had been distributed, without competitive bidding or oversight, to Cuban-exile organizations in Miami rather than groups in Cuba itself.
Groups financed by the program, the G.A.O. found, made questionable purchases, including cashmere sweaters and Godiva chocolates.
In 2008, the Bush administration sought to overhaul the program, promising to award contracts to groups beyond those in Florida and to devote most of the budget to buying communications equipment to help expand Cubans’ access to information.
The detention of the unidentified American contractor, some Cuba experts said, demonstrated that President Raúl Castro of Cuba had not abandoned the hard-line tactics used for years by his older brother, Fidel, to stifle dissent.
“Under Cuba’s draconian laws,” said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, “even the act of handing out cellphones to government critics can be considered a crime.”
Still, Mr. Vivanco and others said that the contractor’s covert conduct — which included entering Cuba on a tourist visa without proper documents — also raised questions about whether Mr. Obama would fulfill his promise to break with the confrontational tactics that Washington has employed toward Havana for five decades.
“President Obama’s been different in some areas,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert and a vice president of the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “But most of his policy remains the Bush policy, and this is just another example of that.”
The detainee, officials said, was employed by Development Alternatives Inc., which had at least $391,000 in government contracts last year. Based in Bethesda, Md., the company is a kind of do-it-all development company that provides services to the United States government in countries around the world.
Company officials did not respond Friday to requests for comment. On its Web site, the company describes the breadth of its activities, saying, “We help hillside farmers raise their incomes in Haiti, strengthen the credit system for Moroccan entrepreneurs, harmonize natural resource use in the Philippines, mitigate conflict in Liberia, and foster responsive local governments in Serbia.”
It was unclear exactly what the company’s employee was doing at the time he was detained.
Cellphones and computers are available for sale in Cuba, prompting some to question why Cuba decided to crack down on an activity that has long been treated as more of an annoyance than a crime. When it comes to satellite phones, however, the Cubans have taken a far harder line.
Mr. Obama had promised a more open relationship with Cuba, announcing not long after taking office that he would lift restrictions on travel to Cuba for Americans with relatives on the island. He has expanded cultural and academic exchanges between the United States and Cuba. And he began high-level talks on migration, drug trafficking and postal services with the Cuban authorities, discussions that President Bush had halted.
But in recent weeks relations seem to have hit a new stalemate, with Mr. Obama signaling that he was reluctant to create more diplomatic openings until Cuban officials demonstrated a willingness to address the country’s poor human rights record.
Ricardo Alarcón, the speaker of Cuba’s National Assembly, said he had heard nothing about the detention of the American. He termed the policy changes instituted so far by Mr. Obama as “minor” and described the White House as too distracted by other issues to focus attention on Cuba.
“You have two wars,” he said. “You have the economy. You have the debate on health care. It is clear to me that the administration is not prepared at this moment to give a priority to the relationship with Cuba.”
Congress is considering bills that would lift restrictions on travel to Cuba for all Americans. Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, added his name last week to a long list of co-sponsors of the measure.
Marc Lacey reported from Havana, and Ginger Thompson from Washington. Kitty Bennett contributed research.M