Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Former captive: Alan Gross likely feels disoriented, "totally helpless"

Robert Landori knows better than most people what jailed American Alan Gross must be going through while in custody in Havana.
Cuban authorities once accused Landori of being a CIA spy and threw him in prison. He said:
They kept me in solitary for 66 days during which they interrogated me regularly...I was never tortured, but I did lose 50 pounds during my stay in prison...I was slowly going out of my mind with worry...the food was barely sufficient for sustenance.
Cuban officials jailed Gross in December 2009 and accused him of espionage.
Like me, Gross was denied 'consular access' for a couple of months, and was probably being kept in solitary confinement during that time. The mind plays funny tricks under such circumstances, especially when one's diet is poor. One becomes disoriented and one's self-confidence is profoundly shaken even though one knows that one has done nothing inappropriate or illegal or immoral.
One begins to feel totally helpless. This is how Alan Gross' mindset must be these days...
Landori, 76, of Montreal, is the author of "Havana Harvest,"a 393-page novel touted as "a fast-paced international thriller." The book is about two spies who face off against each other. It is loosely based on events of the late 1980s, including Cuban authorities' June 1989 arrest of a popular army general and more than a dozen others.

The defendants were accused of corruption, including taking bribes to allow Colombian traffickers to operate in Cuban territory. Two of the suspects – Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and Col. Tony de la Guardia – were executed by firing squad. Ochoa was a close friend of Raul Castro, the current president of Cuba.
The episode helped inspire Landori’s book, which was in the works for 20 years before Emerald Book Co. in Austin published it in 2010.
In an interview with Along the Malecón, the author spoke about his experiences in Cuba, his thoughts about Alan Gross, and his outlook for Cuba.



Along the Malecón: When were you held in custody in Cuba? How did your arrest come about? Why do you believe Cuban officials falsely accused you of espionage? How did you achieve your freedom?

Robert Landori: As a Canadian I was free to travel and do business in Cuba at all times.
And I did.
I sold the regime bull semen, medicine, salted cod - even replacement parts for the Havana Libre (previously Hilton) Hotel's industrial dishwashing machine, not to mention tires for Fidel's and his Comandantes' fleet of Oldsmobiles.
In September 1968, after lunch at the hotel's restaurant, I took the elevator to my room. I noticed that the cab suddenly filled with men. I got out on my floor and headed for a meeting with my Quebec-based supplier of bulls' semen when a man rushed by and turned to face me. Another called out behind me in Spanish:
Landori, you're under arrest. We are State Security. Come with us.
I had the presence of mind not to stop. I kept going and when I reached the open door of my Quebec contact's room I stepped inside, told him that the G2 were after me and asked that he immediately inform the Canadian Embassy.
Then I returned to the policemen who took me to their headquarters and before I knew it I was being 'processed' and accused of being a CIA spy.
I vehemently denied the charge.
They kept me in solitary for 66 days during which they interrogated me regularly and allowed me to see the Canadian Consul (the Embassy's Third Secretary) only after six weeks' captivity.
I was never tortured, but I did lose 50 pounds during my stay in prison because:
  • I kept up with my regime of daily exercise (running in place, doing push-ups etc.., 
  • I was slowly going out of my mind with worry - especially before receiving my first consular visit, and 
  • the food was barely sufficient for sustenance.
Naturally, my principal concern was the charge of espionage which, the Consul confirmed, had been filed against me. I was keenly aware that the penalty, should I be found guilty, was execution or, at least, 25 years of forced labor. (I was 34 at the time and I had a wife and two young children).
I kept racking my brain day and night for a clue as to which one of my many acquaintances could have been the inadvertent cause of my misery - which one was working for the Agency, without me knowing about it, of course.
One day in late November my chief interrogator came into my cell and told me to pack my belongings (a toothbrush and a book) because I was going to be sent home the next day.
Here is the official version of my release:
Mr. Landori was released by the Cubans following representations made by Canada's External Affairs Department. No charges were laid against him and a Canadian Embassy spokesman said the matter 'appears closed'.
After his release ... he left for Nassau on a chartered flight operated by the British Embassy in Havana.
So why all the fuss, you ask.
It took me forty-two years to get the answer to this question when a Cuban engineer´s son who now lives in Montreal sought me out in April 2010, and showed me the transcript of his father's trial - a trial that took place in January, 1969.
These are the facts, incredible as they may seem:
During my trip to Havana in the Spring of 1968 I was approached by a Cuban electronics engineer who had been tasked to design and build a Cuban computer for mass consumption. He needed some spare parts and asked me to quote on them. I told him that, before quoting, I needed to know the quantities that he required.
Unbelievably my question was considered by the Cubans as an act of espionage!!!
The engineer was arrested in the summer of the same year and held without trial until January 7, 1969 when he was accused (on the basis of a surveillance tape-recording prepared by a G2 team of my conversation with the engineer in the privacy of my hotel room the previous Spring) of having endangered "the Integrity and Stability of the Nation" by revealing to the Hungaro-Canadian Commission Agent (me) certain secret economic information, namely the number of radios and computers Cuba was planning to build. The engineer was sentenced to NINE years in prison. I was freed after 66 days in solitary in Naranjito Prison.
The Cubans' paranoia about every North American visitor being a CIA agent boggles the mind!
But every cloud has a silver lining. I used the experience I gained from having spent time in a Cuban prison extensively while writing my latest thriller, Havana Harvest.

Along the Malecón: What do you think of the case of Alan Gross? Given your experiences, what do you imagine he is going through? How do you believe his case will end?

Landori: Alan Gross is in a difficult position - he has been caught out giving conflicting information. He said he was going to Cuba 'to help a small number of Jewish citizens to have unfiltered access to the Internet,' but the Jewish community says they don't know Alan Gross, supposedly a specialist 'in bringing satellite signals to remote locations'.
Gross is (was?) working for Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a State Department Contractor. Cuban law specifically forbids participating in Cuba in the distribution of resources emanating from US Government agencies. It seems that this was precisely was Gross was doing. Furthermore, he entered Cuba on a tourist visa then proceeded to act as an uninvited independent business and economic development consultant. (The State Department says that Gross was sent to Cuba to assist "civil society organizations" to better communicate through technology.)
A murky situation to say the least.
Like me, Gross was denied 'consular access' for a couple of months, and was probably being kept in solitary confinement during that time.
The mind plays funny tricks under such circumstances, especially when one's diet is poor. One becomes disoriented and one's self-confidence is profoundly shaken even though one knows that one has done nothing inappropriate or illegal or immoral.
One begins to feel totally helpless.
This is how Alan Gross' mindset must be these days, even after having been visited by his people because he knows that, technically, he has broken the law and is, therefore, facing a prison term of from three to eight years, if found guilty.
But his situation is not altogether hopeless: although he is still in maximum security, he has not been charged with anything thus far. Therefore, it seems that the Cuban authorities are waiting for some further developments before availing themselves of one of two options:
  • Having declared him persona non-grata, expel Alan Gross without charging him,
  • Put him on trial, and once he is found guilty (a foregone conclusion), lock him up for a year or eight.
My guess is that he'll go on trial and will be condemned to three years' deprivation of liberty (prison or forced labor on a 'farm'). Down the road (perhaps in a year) he will be sent home in exchange for some concession Uncle Sam will make to help getting him sprung.

Along the Malecón: How do you know that Gross faces three to eight years in prison?

Landori: According to the nonprofit Center for Democracy in the Americas, Cuba's penal code provides a prison term of three to eight years for someone who "participates in the distribution of financial . . . or other resources that come from the United States government, its agencies, subordinates, representatives, functionaries, or private entities."

Along the Malecón: The U.S. and Cuba have been fighting over the fate of the island for more than 50 years? Who's winning?

Landori: Neither side is winning.
On the one hand, the US still has a dictator-run communist country ninety miles off its shores and has to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to keep this anomaly under control.
On the other hand, Cuba is virtually bankrupt. Its people have to resort to thievery, corruption and chicanery to survive. There is no economic growth and no individual freedom. This inhibits technological development. More than ever, Cuba depends on foreign aid - after the US, and the USSR it now seems to be Venezuela's turn to ante up. And let's not forget the relatives of Cubans residing outside the island who keep sending dollars to their families left behind.
Obviously, the real loser in all this is the Cuban people who have forgotten how to make an honest living and who have been denied all hope for a better future.

Along the Malecón: How do you see the future of Cuba?

Landori: A difficult question to answer.
Fifty years of serfdom changes a people!
Cubans have become used to living under a government that looks after them from the cradle to the grave. In exchange, they have given up their right to freedom and ambitions. To retrain them as functioning members of an egalitarian and democratic society will take at least a generation - twenty years.
The Castro brothers realize this even though they are feverishly grooming Raul's only son, Alejandrito Castro Espin, to take over the reins of power from his dad.
Castro Jr. (nicknamed El Tuerto - the one-eyed one - having lost an eye in Angola while serving there) is an engineer, holds the rank of Colonel in the army and has, of late, been involved in various political events and official visits, as his father's personal assistant.
Whoever will finally emerge, after a painful transitional period, as the leader of post-Castro Cuba (and I don't believe Alejandro Castro will be the one) will have to contend with problems best described by Dr. Jose Azel (Senior Scholar at the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies) in his book called Mañana in Cuba:
Unfortunately, the Cuban transition to democracy and free markets is highly unlikely to follow the path of some of the most successful Eastern European countries that faced similar, but not identical challenges. Cuba´s post-Castro interregnum [...a period of discontinuity of government organization or social order...] will be, arguably, the most critical period in the nation's history. It will be a period during which inexperienced post-Castro leaders will face myriad social, political and economic policy decisions. Unseasoned leaders will need to make strategic, tactical and operational policy choices that will impact not only the existing circumstances, but the nation's immediate and long-term future. And, in all probability, this will have to take place in an environment of socio-political and economic disarray and confusion, if not outright chaos.
Will Uncle Sam just stand there and watch or will he interfere?

1 comment:

Matheus said...

Very interesting and unfortunately He might be right about the future of Cuba. Of course I hope He were wrong and Cuba were able to trantioning to democracy in a smooth but steadily way. I keep my fingers crossed.