Alan Gross goes on hunger strike while Cuban Twitter scandal grows

Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who has been held in Cuban prison for over four years, went on hunger strike Thursday to protest his treatment…

In this file photo from 2011 Cuban security forces arrive with USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, left, outside the courthouse in Havana, Cuba, where he stood trial. Gross has gone on a hunger strike to denounce his imprisonmwent. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes, File)

Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who has been held in Cuban prison for over four years, went on hunger strike Thursday to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and U.S. governments.

SEE ALSO: Cuba’s tangled web

His decision coincided with the revelation that USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) had established a secret text message service, titled ZunZuneo, that the AP described as designed to foment unrest in Cuba.

Gross began his fast to protest “Cuban Twitter” as a prime example of the “mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments” that he believes are keeping him in prison, according to Global Post. The contractor also argued that programs like ZunZuneo put other USAID employees around the world at risk of suspicion or imprisonment.

Hoping for a “Cuban Spring”

According to the AP report on Cuban Twitter, USAID specifically created ZunZuneo to trigger a movement against the Communist government.

The report cites government documents showing that USAID planned to “build a subscriber base through ‘non-controversial content,’” which included sports, weather, and music updates. After reaching a certain number of subscribers, ZunZuneo would begin introducing political content “aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’—mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring.”

According to a 2010 memo from a project contractor, there was to be “absolutely no mention of the United States government involvement.” To hide its involvement, USAID allegedly routed Cuban Twitter through front companies, employing a Cayman Islands bank account and contractors outside of the U.S.

Cuba's telecom infrastructure doesn't support smart phones.

In this March 11, 2014 photo, a woman uses her cellphone as she sits on the Malecon in Havana. USAID masterminded the creation of a “Cuban Twitter,” based on sending out text messages, since Cubans have limited data access on the island. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

USAID has not denied that the shell company in the Cayman Islands, dubbed MovilChat, hid the program’s money trail. According to strategy documents and expense reports obtained by AP, USAID also set up a Spanish company. The agency has denied the existence of that entity, despite documents showing $12,500 worth of end-of-month expenses, according to ABC.

USAID Denies Wrongdoing

Though there’s lengthy documentation from AP, USAID denies that the ZunZuneo social network was anything more than that.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, quoted in Time Magazine, said that “Working to improve platforms of communication is a core part of what USAID works to do…it’s inaccurate that [the program] goes beyond that.” Shah’s agency has argued that the AP report is false and that their program was simply meant to overcome the “information blockade” in Cuba.

Shah hasn’t convinced the U.S. Congress, however. Many legislators, and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in particular, are arguing that programs like Cuban Twitter are completely antithetical to the agency’s purpose and put employees, like Alan Gross, at risk.

According to Leahy, numerous USAID employees are already in contact with the oversight committee and have complained that below-the-radar programs “drive perceptions that the agency is engaged in intelligence-like activities.”

Cuba Jailed American Alan Gross

In this photo provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal. (AP Photo/James L. Berenthal)

Hunger Strike

Alan Gross, who was sentenced by a Cuban court in 2011 to 15 years in prison, is tired of the secrecy and miscommunication. Cuban Twitter, for him, is the last straw.

The USAID contractor was arrested during his fifth trip to Cuba, according to Global Post, when he was attempting to establish an online network for Havana’s Jews. He was accused of “crimes against the state.”

In the interim, he has spoken out strongly against his former employer’s use of deception in its dealings with Cuba and other countries. In going on hunger strike, Gross said that he is protesting “the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal [his imprisonment]” as well as “calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this stand-off” so that he can return to his family.

Gross’s lawyer, Scott Gilbert, was quoted in BBC as saying that it was “shocking that USAID would imperil [Gross’s] safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba.”

Cuba has proposed a spy swap of five Cuban nationals currently held in the U.S. for Gross’s release; the Obama administration has not made any indication that it will make that deal.

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