HAVANA – A U.S. government contractor went on trial in Cuba on Friday in a case sure to have a profound impact on relations between the Cold War enemies.
Alan Gross faces a possible 20-year sentence for "acts against the integrity and independence" of Cuba. The 61-year-old Maryland native was working for the Bethesda-based Development Associates International on a USAID-program that promotes democracy when he was arrested in December 2009.
His family, and U.S. and company officials, say he was bringing communications equipment to Cuba's 1,500-strong Jewish community. Cuban Jewish groups deny having anything to do with him, and there was speculation some Cuban Jewish leaders would testify against him.
Gross's wife, Judy, and lawyer Peter J. Kahn arrived by foot at the courthouse in a converted residential mansion in Havana's once-prosperous 10 de Octubre neighborhood. American consular officials also arrived at the court as observors. They did not speak to reporters, who were kept some distance away across a narrow street.
The trial — closed to the media — is expected to be over in a day or two, with a verdict announced immediately thereafter. Sentencing, should Gross be convicted, would likely come about two weeks later.
"We hope it will be resolved so that Mr. Gross can return home to the United States," State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said from Washington. "He has been in prison for too long."
The proceedings offer Cuba a chance to highlight Washington-backed democracy-building efforts like the one Gross was working on, which Havana says are designed to topple the government.
Washington spends more than $40 million a year on the programs, with USAID controlling most of that and doling out the work to subcontractors.
Development Associates International, or DAI, was awarded a $4.5 million contract for the program in which Gross was involved, and Gross reportedly was paid more than a half-million dollars himself, despite the fact he spoke little Spanish and had no history working in Cuba. Gross traveled to the island several times over a short period on a tourist visa, apparently raising Cuban suspicions.
The programs have also been criticized repeatedly in congressional reports as being wasteful and ineffective. In March 2010, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, of California — both longtime critics of Washington's 48-year trade embargo on Cuba — temporarily held up new funding in the wake of Gross' arrest. The money has begun flowing again, though U.S. officials say DAI is no longer part of the program.
A senior congressional aide with knowledge of the USAID programs told The Associated Press the Cuba effort — which was ramped up under the Bush Administration with the goal of promoting "regime change" on the island — was on autopilot by the time President Barack Obama took office.
"Neither the State Department nor USAID knew who all of these people were or what they were doing in the name of the US government and with US taxpayer money," he said, adding that oversight was insufficient to tell whether the programs were effective.
He said the contractors themselves designed and evaluated the programs and determined whether they were doing a good job.
"They had the mandate, the money, and political advocates in Congress," he said.
The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the programs with the media, said that "to this day" it is not clear who Gross was working with in Cuba.
Cuban authorities have not spoken publicly about their case against Gross. But a video that surfaced days before the charges were announced indicates prosecutors will likely argue that the USAID programs amount to an attack on the island's sovereignty.
Judy Gross has appealed to Cuba to release her husband on humanitarian grounds, noting that the couple's 26-year-old daughter Shira is suffering from cancer and that Gross's elderly mother is also very ill.
On a blog she started to track her cancer treatment, Shira Gross asks followers to keep her father in their thoughts.
"G-d listens to our prayers, so please pray for his release," she wrote in an entry posted Thursday.
Many observers do see a way forward that would get Gross back to his family, and avoid a standoff between Havana and Washington.
As recently as January, a senior U.S. State Department official said she had been given signals by the Cuban government that Gross would be sent home soon following a trial. American officials were taken aback when — a few weeks later — prosecutors said they were seeking a 20-year jail term.
Phil Peters, a longtime Cuba expert who is vice president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said he saw Cuba freeing Gross soon, despite the fact prosecutors are seeking such a stiff sentence.
"The odds are the guy is going to get convicted, that's not hard to predict," he said. "But I don't believe that the Cuban government has an interest in holding him in jail for the long term."