Why exactly did the Cuban Jewish community need Alan Gross?

La Alborada

From reading the news in the US, one would think that, when it comes to information technology (IT), Cuba is a vast wasteland. One would also think that Cuban Jews are disconnected from the virtual world, and that it took a contracted and surreptitious US agent to help them download Jewish songs from Internet and to contact Jews abroad. One would not think that Gross could have been setting up, unknown to the Cuban government, a separate satellite transmission channel, or carrying out other activities that could be perceived as creating a secret communications channel to the US in support of USAID strategies.

A quick search on Internet leads to a site, The Jews of Cuba, that offers an overview of the Jewish communities in several cities of the island. We do not know how long that site has been up, but it lists several links and e-mail addresses.

Additional information can be found on sites apparently based in the U.S., the Cuba-America Jewish Mission, and Jewish Solidarity.

There is yet another website with a more modern look to it, La comunidad hebrea de Cuba, or the Cuban Jewish Community, with pages in both Spanish and English. The site lists a copyright of 2003.

It reads: “Welcome to the Cuban Jewish Community Website. This website was designed and produced at the Technological Training Center of the Havana Jewish Community.” A link to the “Work Team” shows the names and pictures of the team members, including Pablo Verbitsky, IT Engineer; William Miller, Telecommunications Engineer; Yosvany Carmenate, IT Engineer; and Houwer Friman, Designer.

Cuba does provide high-level instruction in IT. It is not a surprise to find Cuban Jews among the qualified graduates. Was Alan Gross necessary to design and set up the site? Indeed, the site lists other human resources and collaborators. Its home page notes that it is supported by World ORT. That organization can be found with a simple web search.

Its work is summarized as follows: “Welcome to the online home of World ORT, the world’s largest Jewish education and vocational training non-governmental organisation. This year, through our network of schools, colleges, training centres and programmes in Israel, Russia, Argentina and many other countries worldwide, we will benefit more than 200,000 people –young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish.” A link to “Latin America” notes that ORT is supporting Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Cuba, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Peru and Panama.

The site earlier noted, for the Jewish Community of Cuba, names some other organizations that assist the community. These are, in addition to ORT: B’Nai Brith and the Cuban Jewish Relief Project; the Canadian Jewish Congress; the Joint Distribution Committee; and the United Jewish Committee. It notes that ORT has maintained a tech training program in Havana since 2000.

It does not appear that the Jewish community of Cuba, as relatively small as it is, lacks capable IT workers or contacts with organizations outside Cuba. It maintains websites that are not secret and obviously known to the Cuban government, including one that lists its supporters abroad.

Why was it necessary for USAID to contract DAI and in turn Alan Gross, under a “democracy building” program, to enter Cuba repeatedly without declaring his purposes?

It could be said that, no matter how capable the IT staff available within Cuba is, they still need better hardware and software. That is the case for Cubans in general, who face US laws that prohibit Cuba’s access to any IT produced in the US or by US companies. And it is true that Cuba’s access to Internet itself is also limited by the US. Gross’ activities could have been a way around the blockade that his own governmental employer imposes on all Cubans. Maybe the Cuban Jews needed special attention, in USAID’s view.

But why go the secret-agent route, when there are established international organizations that have been working with the Jewish community of Cuba for years? What exactly was Gross doing, and why was he doing it?

A clear and truthful statement from USAID, instead of the media fog that it and DAI have generated, would help to answer the question.

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