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Our Man in Havana

February 8, 2011

SpyTalk, 7 Feb 2011: The U.S.-Cuba spy wars have long seemed more Monty Python thanJohn Le Carré. As if more proof were needed, Cuban prosecutorsannounced Friday that they would seek a 20-year jail term for an American contractor arrested more than a year ago for giving satellite phones and computer gear to Cuban Jews.

The misadventures of Alan Gross, 61, of Bethesda, Md., may yet end in tragedy, if he does in fact end up spending long years in jail as an accused spy — which he is almost certainly not, unless the CIA is far more clueless in Cuba than previously demonstrated.

But the betting by some people who watch such things closely is that Gross is slim bait in the way-too-long-running, post-Cold War farce that passes as U.S.-Cuba relations.


One possibility is that the Cubans will want to trade Gross for the “Cuban Five,” the intelligence officers convicted of spying for Havana in Florida in 2001 and now serving long sentences. Cuba has long sought their release, on grounds that they were not spying on the United States so much as anti-Castro “terrorists” in Florida.

“That was exactly my thought when I read about this [Gross] late yesterday — that they are looking for trade goods so Raul [Castro] can claim a victory over the Yanquis,” said Harry B. “Skip” Brandon, a former FBI deputy assistant director for counterintelligence who specialized in Cuban espionage.

“The other possibility is to sentence him and then graciously declare leniency and hope to get a favorable chit with Obama…” Brandon added.

Saul Landau, a longtime journalist and filmmaker who made a friendlydocumentary about Fidel Castro in 1969 but turned more critical about him in subsequent films, likewise predicted that Cuban officials would jail Gross then try to earn positive points by releasing him.

“My guess is they have little hope for a swap — given U.S. cold responses to this suggestion [in the past]. So why not sentence him, have him spend a month or two in the can and then release him — a humanitarian gesture to the Catholic Church and [his] synagogue — to return to the U.S.?”

Landau suggested that perhaps “Obama would make some positive response to this gesture.”

Gross is charged with “acts against the integrity and independence” of Cuba, a euphemism for espionage or other subversive acts. If anything, he sounds more like Alec Guinness in “Our Man in Havana” than Sean Connery in Russia House. Whatever the merits of the charges against him, handing out satellite phones without a license was bound to draw the attention of Cuba’s counterspies.

“Gross is guilty on several counts,” Landau maintained, “but the Cubans know he’s a minor pawn in an operation funded openly by Congress.”

The problem for Cuba — and by extension, Gross — is that Obama’s attention is focused elsewhere.

“Obama has not been paying much attention to Cuba — and why would he?” Brandon said, “but the Cubans think they are the center of the world.”



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