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Cuba detains U.S. contractor handing out electronics

December 13, 2009|Times Wire Services

Washington — The Cuban government has arrested a U.S. contractor working for the United States Agency for International Development who was distributing cellphones and laptop computers to Cuban activists, State Department officials and congressional sources said Saturday.

The contractor, who has not been identified because of federal privacy rules, works for Development Alternatives Inc., based in Bethesda, Md.

Jim Boomgard, company president and chief executive, said in a statement that his firm was awarded a government contract last year to help USAID "strengthen civil society in support of just and democratic governance in Cuba."

"Our prime concern is for the safety, well-being and quick return to the United States of the detained individual," Boomgard said.

The American was detained Dec. 5, a State Department spokeswoman said.

A senior Republican congressional aide said the American was being held at a secure facility in Havana.

"It is bizarre they're just holding him and not letting us see him at all," said the aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Attempts to reach Cuban government officials to discuss the case were unsuccessful.

Cellphones and laptops are legal in Cuba, though they are new and coveted commodities. The Cuban government granted ordinary citizens the right to buy cellphones just last year. They are used mostly for sending text messages because a 15-minute phone conversation would eat up a day's wages.

Internet use is extremely limited on the island. It is available in expensive hotels, where foreign visitors stay, and at some government facilities, such as universities. Cubans who want to log on often have to give their names to the government.

Access to some websites is restricted.

A person familiar with the detained American's activity said he was "working with local organizations that were trying to connect with each other and get connected to the Internet and connect with their affinity groups in the U.S."

The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the case, said Cuban authorities were aware of the project.

"Why they picked on this situation," the person said, "is a bit of a mystery."

The Obama administration and Cuba have talked about improving relations between the two countries, but progress has been slow and this incident may further raise tensions.

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