A U.S. government contractor confirmed Saturday that Cuba has detained one of its subcontractors' employees but did not comment on a report he went to the island as a tourist and was handing out laptops and communications equipment.
The man arrested "was an employee of a program subcontractor, which was implementing a . . . subcontract to assist Cuban civil society organizations,'' said Development Alternatives Inc., (DAI) a suburban Washington firm supervising some $40 million in U.S. government aid for pro-democracy programs in Cuba.
The statement, issued by DAI President and CEO Jim Boomgard, did not identify the employee or the subcontractor, and did not explain exactly what the man was doing in Cuba.
The man's arrest could well spark a new diplomatic row between Washington and Cuba, which has long been highly sensitive to U.S. pro-democracy activities on the island and accused dissidents of being American "mercenaries'' and even spies.
"We have been working closely with the State Department to ensure that the detainee's safety and well-being is given top priority,'' Boomgard wrote.
State Department spokeswoman Megan Mattson said the American was arrested Dec. 5 and that U.S. diplomats in Havana have asked for access to him, but would not release further details because of U.S. privacy laws. The Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington said it had no comment on the case.
The New York Times reported Saturday that the man arrived in Cuba on a tourist visa and was handing out the computers and communications equipment "on behalf of the Obama administration.'' It added that it was "unclear exactly what the [man] was doing at the time he was detained.''
Two persons involved with U.S. government grants for Cuba programs said they were not surprised by the man's arrest because of recent changes in the procedures that sidelined experienced Cuban-American groups and then rushed large amounts of money to groups with little knowledge of the island.
Last year, Congress approved $40 million for Cuba programs at a time when the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor were struggling for control of Washington's international development efforts, said one of the persons. Both asked for anonymity to avoid conflicts with the grant bureaucracy.
DAI, one of the largest development consultants in Washington, won the main contract, the Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program, which in effect put it in charge of hiring subcontractors.
One of the two sources added that while he did not know the American arrested, it would have been a mistake to send to Cuba an "American-looking guy'' to deliver items such as laptops and cellphones to dissidents.
Cuba's security agents pay special attention to single American men with tourist visas, he said, "and Americans are just not used to looking over their shoulder when they are in a totalitarian state.''
"If I wanted to slip something into China, I would not use an American. I would use a Chinese-American who can blend in,'' he added.
DAI is regarded as one of the U.S. government's largest development contractors, with offices in Washington, Europe, Jordan, Mexico, Pakistan and Palestine. It manages a $50 million contract for Afghanistan.
Boomgard's statement said the 40-year old DAI is a professional economic development organization that has ``been working to bring development benefits to millions of disadvantaged people in more than 100 countries worldwide.''