U.S. officials let an American development worker languish in a Cuban prison rather than quickly negotiate his release because they were under pressure from hardline Florida lawmakers eager to highlight Cuba as an “evil empire,” a former U.S. official said in an interview.
Cuban authorities arrested Gross in 2009 for setting up illegal Wi-Fi hotspots. Janet Ballantyne, former acting assistant administrator of the Latin America and Caribbean Bureau of the Agency for International Development, said he was carrying out a “clandestine” project on USAID’s behalf.
There is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. could have negotiated release for Gross within months of his being captured, but his being held a prisoner there was very much a symbol for Cuban-Americans who were looking for regime change, including one senator and three members of the House as well as a lot of powerful people in South Florida. I think that the power that they brought was greater than the powers who said, “Hey, let’s release this guy.”
Ballantyne and other officials were interviewed as part of a USAID oral history project. The Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training received a $150,000 grant to carry out the project, scheduled to end by March 30, 2019.
USAID released the Ballantyne interview earlier this year. Kenneth L. Brown conducted the interview on Jan. 13, 2015.
Excerpts of the interview are below:
Q: In September 2009 when you left that position to become acting assistant administrator…
BALLANTYNE: For Latin America.
Q: …for Latin America and the Caribbean, you did that for a year. What happened during that year? What were your preoccupations?
BALLANTYNE: My biggest preoccupation was Alan Gross and that happened about a month into my tenure. I had no prior idea of the extent of the programs that AID was funding in Cuba. Of course, trying to figure out if there was anything we could do as an agency to get this guy released was a huge priority. Probably the most important lesson I learned was that the power of special interests is much more powerful than the power of government bureaucrats.
Q: Expand on that in this particular case.
BALLANTYNE: There is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. could have negotiated release for Gross within months of his being captured, but his being held a prisoner there was very much a symbol for Cuban-Americans who were looking for regime change, including one senator and three members of the House as well as a lot of powerful people in South Florida. I think that the power that they brought was greater than the powers who said, “Hey, let’s release this guy.”
Q: They saw that as some sort of a concession to the Cubans?
BALLANTYNE: Yeah, well he was the Cardinal Mindszenty; he was the symbol. This was an innocent American, not quite so innocent, but an innocent American being held by the evil empire.
Q: What did his program involve and why did the Cubans take umbrage?
BALLANTYNE: He was a subcontractor under a contract that AID had with a for-profit company. The expressed purpose was to take in equipment that would allow the small Jewish community in Cuba to have Internet access.
Q: And that was against Cuban law, I take it?
Q: Was this a clandestine operation on his part or was he doing this openly?
BALLANTYNE: It was clandestine.
Q: So he knew that the Cubans were not going to be happy about it?
Q: Did the Cubans consider it espionage or were they…
Q: I see.
BALLANTYNE: The overt breaking of laws — and I think that the trial certainly questioned whether he was providing access for a much broader segment of Cuban society than the very small Jewish community.
Q: What was his overt role there? What was the cover story as to why he was there?
BALLANTYNE: The cover story there was that he had been invited by the Jewish community, which is very small. The Jewish community here was furious. They said, “No, we take care of our own, we don’t rely on AID contractors.” When he did finally get caught he was picked up at customs carrying part of some equipment; a couple other colleagues were carrying other parts that when you put them together was something far beyond allowing a small group of people to talk to each other.
Q: Do you know how this project came about? Was this an AID thing or were other agencies involved?
BALLANTYNE: This was the Helms-Burton Act which has as an objective of regime change and this has been on the books since 1986 and funded at about $20 million a year ever since. There is a call for applications for grants, mostly NGOs some for profit but mostly NGOs, who say, “Look I want to provide for support of the families of prisoners of conscience.” They were mostly Cuban-Americans who would fly to the island carrying down medicines, food. After Gross was arrested I looked into all of these programs and just was shaking my head, you know, what are we doing.
Q: Were these coordinating with State? One would assume they would, the State side of the house…
BALLANTYNE: The Cuban desk officer I think knew about it. I don’t think it was well coordinated. AID had had a series of assistant administrators for Latin America, Cuban- Americans; there were three in a row. They filled the office of Cuban affairs largely with people who were very sympathetic to the regime change. So I don’t think it was so much clandestine as they just didn’t tell people and nobody asked.
Q: I wonder if Gross really knew what risk he was taking.
BALLANTYNE: Certainly I’ve gone over all of his reports and I think he knew that if he was picked up that he would be in trouble and I think he knew he had been followed. This was his fourth trip…
Q: He was going back in at this time?
BALLANTYNE: Yes. So I was just thrilled to see that the idiotic Cuban policy we’ve had since 1959 is finally coming to a close. I think of all the things Obama has done, and I think he is going to go down eventually as one of the great presidents, personally I feel that opening U.S.-Cuban relations will go down as one of the greatest accomplishments. I’m wondering if there is a way I can get to Cuba.
Q: Yeah, I would like to go down. Is there anything else about that time as assistant administrator? Obviously Gross was a major element. Were there other issues?
BALLANTYNE: Well, I’m a great believer in Latin America. We used to refer to Latin America as our backyard. It’s not, it’s the front yard and over the years going back to the Alliance for Progress we have invested greatly in Latin America. It’s almost as though we are saying, “Okay, we are finished, you are done” and there is still a lot to be done.
Ballantyne died of a respiratory condition in Bethesda, Maryland, on Aug. 30, 2017. She was 78.
She spent 33 years at USAID.