I remember reading about the arrest of Alan Gross when it happened back in 2009. I knew that the Cubans accused him of being some kind of spy who was setting up electronic equipment on the island in a surreptitious way. At the time, it seemed to me as if the accusations were pretty well justified. Over the course of time, however, the details escaped me. So, when I saw that the Miami Herald was using his arrest and detention as a justification for maintaining our embargo of Cuba, I looked up the details again. Here’s how the Herald characterized the situation:

Then there’s the case of American Alan Gross, sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state.” Translation from the Kafkaesque: He was caught bringing a satellite phone to Cuba’s small and beleaguered Jewish community.

Is there any doubt that the Castro brothers remain committed to maintaining their dictatorship over Cuba? Of course not.

Look, I can engage in a debate over the wisdom of maintaining an embargo on Cuba, but not with a publication that is this loose with the facts. Notice the singular (phone) that the Herald claims caused Mr. Gross’s arrest and 15-year sentence in prison. Now, let’s look at the real itinerary of just one of Gross’s trips to Cuba:

The equipment he brought to Cuba on his fourth trip, most, but not all of which is legal in Cuba, included 12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte external drives, three Internet satellite phones known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers, 18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks, three VoIP phones, and networking switches.

This, of course, has little to do with what his real mission was, but it’s the haul from just the fourth of his five trips to Cuba, and it’s obvious that he wasn’t arrested for giving a single satellite phone to the Jewish community in Havana. In fact, his behavior pointed to something a little more nefarious:

Gross filed reports for USAID of his four visits to Cuba in 2009. The report of the fifth and final trip was written by a representative of Gross’ company. A review of the reports was revealed on February 12, 2012, by the Associated Press (AP). According to the reports, Gross was aware of the risks he was taking. AP reports that Gross did not identify himself as a representative of the U.S. government, but claimed to be a member of a Jewish humanitarian group. To escape Cuban authorities’ detection, he enlisted the help of American Jews to transport electronic equipment, instructing them to pack items a piece at a time in carry-on luggage, and also travelled with American Jewish humanitarian groups doing missions on the island so he could intercede with Cuban authorities if questions arose.

And there’s the whole job description thing.

[Gross] had a long career as an international development worker who had been active in some 50 countries and territories across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, including Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was setting up satellite communications systems to circumvent state-controlled channels…

…Gross was working with Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a contractor working with USAID who had won a US$6 million U.S. government contract for the program in which Gross was involved, a controversial “democracy-promotion program” that ballooned under the Bush administration, to provide communications equipment to break the Cuban government’s ‘information blockade’. Gross received more than US$500,000, despite the fact that he spoke little Spanish and had not worked in Cuba before.

USAID’s US$20 million Cuba program, authorized by a law calling for regime change in Cuba, has been criticized repeatedly in congressional reports as being wasteful and ineffective, and putting people in danger.

Obviously, I don’t know what he was really up to, but his job was to go into countries that try to control their internal media and undermine their efforts at censorship and repression. That has an admirable aspect to it, but it is a very long way from carrying a single satellite phone with you into a country.

So, what I say to the Miami Herald is that you can’t complain effectively about media censorship if, as a media organization, you willingly engage in the rankest misinformation. If you lie about the small things, then how much more likely are you lie about the big things?

It’s sad when you can’t make an effort to discredit the Castro brothers without doing more to discredit yourselves.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com