Posted on Monday, 11.29.10
American contractor nears 1 year languishing in Cuban jail without charges
A request to release an American development worker on humanitarian grounds was denied by the Cuban government, which has held the man for a year without charges. BY FRANCES ROBLES
Alan Gross has dropped 90 pounds from his 250-pound frame, is losing feeling in his right foot and spent most of his summer watching Cuban baseball on TV.
The American arrested a year ago for illegally bringing Internet to Jewish groups in Cuba kills time with musical jam sessions with his jailers and by mapping out an economic recovery plan for the country that has held him without charges.
Gross, 61, is an economic consultant and figures Cuba could use his help.
“He really means it — he would like to work on that,” Gross’ wife Judy told The Miami Herald. “I would describe him as an idealist, someone who has worked with kids, adolescents and the disadvantaged in developing countries and has never lost his excitement for that.”
Judy Gross has other plans for her husband of four decades — like getting him home. Her husband’s detention and the loss of 70 percent of her household income forced the psychotherapist to sell her home of 22 years. She now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., where she spends her evenings writing letters to the likes of Cuban leader Raúl Castro and worrying about her 26-year-old daughter, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Despite the public appeals for his freedom and letters to Castro —
Gross and his mother wrote him, too — Friday will mark exactly a year since the world-traveling development worker found himself trapped in a diplomatic conflict between two nations.
The Cuban government recently rejected the Gross family’s plea for a humanitarian release, and insisted that the case is moving forward like any other.
“It remains in the same situation. It still hasn’t concluded. It’s still being worked and when it finishes, the answer will be given,” Maj. Gen. Darío Delgado Cura said at a news conference in Cuba. “This adheres to Cuban law. There’s no problem. Everything moves ahead as was foreseen.
“It’s a normal case.”
Some have suggested that the Cuban government is holding out to pressure the United States to release five intelligence agents jailed in federal prison, a swap Judy Gross considers “apples and oranges.”
“They were arrested and convicted for spying,” she said. “Alan is a hostage.”
Gross has emerged as a pawn between two nations that severed diplomatic ties decades ago. His arrest appears to have stalled any momentum that may have existed for Havana and Washington to begin building bridges. Experts say Gross now serves as a symbol of both a nation that lacks the rule of law, and another’s misguided efforts at promoting democracy.
Gross was arrested Dec. 3 at his Havana hotel on the tail end of a weeklong trip. A consultant, he had been hired by Bethesda-based Development Alternatives, Inc., (DAI) to help bring the Internet to Jewish organizations. But Gross’ five trips to Cuba were funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Cuba program, whose mission is to help foster democracy on an island ruled by the same pair of communist brothers since 1959.
Or as Cuba sees it: counter-revolutionary regime change.
“I find it frustrating that Cuba has not charged Alan Gross but even more frustrating that the U.S. has not taken the steps which could have led to his release,” said John McAuliff, who runs a foundation that helped normalize relations with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. “The fundamental problem is mutual respect and sovereignty.”
McAuliff is also an anti-embargo activist in New York who follows the case closely. “The U.S. politically and culturally presumes it has the right to intervene in other countries for their own good,” he said, “and to support our values whenever we can get away with it.”
The Cuban government has accused Gross of smuggling illegal satellite equipment and being a spy. Whatever gear he was caught with — U.S. officials have said it was satellite gear — was cleared by Cuban Customs.
Gross was interrogated daily, sometimes twice, for the first six months of his detention, Judy Gross said.
“He did nothing wrong,” she said. “He is a great person who may have been a bit naïve. He loves the Cuban people and does not want to hurt the Cuban people.”
Gross has been assigned a Cuban attorney in Havana who visits him weekly and brings him candy or cake. She said that while the U.S. State Department has been supportive, the White House has yet to reach out to her.
The Cubans are trying to use Gross as a “pawn” in bi-lateral relations, said a U.S. official who discussed the case on the condition of anonymity, citing government policy.
“We are not going to play that game.”
In September, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela met with Cuban officials during the opening of United Nations General Assembly to push for Gross’ release, said Philip Crowley, State Department spokesman.
“Unfortunately, that has not yet happened,” Crowley told reporters, later adding that “we would hope that it would happen today, but that’s up to the Cuban Government.”
“DAI is profoundly disappointed by Alan’s continued detention,” DAI’s President and CEO James Boomgard said in a statement. “As the anniversary of his detention approaches, our thoughts are with Alan, his wife Judy, and their two daughters, and our hope is that this loving husband and father may be swiftly reunited with his family.”
Judy Gross was allowed to visit her husband for three days in July. She saw him at the military hospital where he is now being held.
“I prepared myself for the worst, but I still wasn’t prepared,” she said. “He looked like a 70-year-old man all hunched over. He looked pale, his cheeks were sunken in; his posture was humped over. He was dragging one of his feet. That was pretty shocking.”
While he has generally been treated “fairly,” Judy Gross said her husband developed a disk problem that is causing paralysis in one leg. He had ulcers, gout and lost 90 pounds. When he was held in a cell, he stayed in shape by walking around and around and around in circles.
“His letters vary from sounding hopeless, anxious and depressed to very humorous,” she said. “I’m not sure what changes his mood.”
He has nicknamed two of his guards “Cheech and Chong.”
In his last correspondence, he said he had just seen the moon for the second time in a year.
“My plan is to see him again,” Judy Gross said, “when I go there to bring him home.”