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.
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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 mobsmass gatherings called at a moments 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.
USAID has not denied that the shell company in the Cayman Islands, dubbed MovilChat, hid the programs 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 theres 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 its inaccurate that [the program] goes beyond that. Shahs agency has argued that the AP report is false and that their program was simply meant to overcome the information blockade in Cuba.
Shah hasnt 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 agencys 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.
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 Havanas Jews. He was accused of crimes against the state.
In the interim, he has spoken out strongly against his former employers 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.
Grosss lawyer, Scott Gilbert, was quoted in BBC as saying that it was shocking that USAID would imperil [Grosss] 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 Grosss release; the Obama administration has not made any indication that it will make that deal.