Washington Jewish Week / January 20, 2010
By Larry Luxner
The two-story house looks like any other in Potomac’s Fox Hills subdivision — a colonial with wood and brick trim, a mezuzah on the front door and a dark blue sedan parked in the driveway, sporting an “Obama ’08” bumper sticker.
The only thing missing is the man of the house: Alan Gross.
He’s locked up in maximum-security Cuban jail, his immediate fate uncertain. Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, has publicly accused the Jewish detainee and member of Montgomery County’s Am Kolel congregation of working for U.S. “secret services,” made up of what he called “agents, torturers and spies.”
Gross, 60, heads the Joint Business Development Center LLC, a Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit that according to its Web site (which apparently was pulled this week), “provides practical 21st-century solutions to business, government, associations and humanitarian aid organizations, globally.”
JBDC has worked in nearly 60 countries. Among its accomplishments, according to the site, “continued support for humanitarian activities in Cuba, Palestine and Israel.”
In communist Cuba, Gross, who was detained Dec. 4 and whose name was revealed by sources on Dec. 12, reportedly was working with the island’s tiny Jewish community, helping it access the Internet and providing technical assistance to help its 600 to 1,000 mostly elderly members communicate with each other and with Jews overseas. The community thrives on substantial donations from U.S. and Canadian Jewry.
But secrecy seems to shroud Gross’s detention both in Washington and Havana — with some wondering just how kosher his activities were in an island ruled by the Castro regime since 1959.
The detainee’s wife, Judy, declined to discuss her husband’s detention and would not provide a photograph of him. According to informed sources, she has had some brief conversations with her husband. Her sister, Gwen Zuares, president of the American Sephardi Federation, also declined comment.
Rabbi David Shneyer of Am Kolel was out of town, and all congregation president Jeff Sklaver would say is Alan Gross “is in all our thoughts and prayers.”
Likewise, officials at the Cuban Interests Section — the regime’s equivalent of a Washington embassy — refused all comment on the case.
Tuesday’s El Nuevo Herald newspaper in Miami quoted Adela Dworin, the leader of Cuba’s Patronato Hebreo Cubano, a leading Jewish organization in Cuba, as saying she has no knowledge of Gross.
According to informed sources, Gross, who had been the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s director of commerce and professions, 1981-1985, had traveled to Cuba several times, distributing humanitarian aid and cell phones to political dissidents under a contract with Bethesda-based Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI).
Yet on his latest trip, Gross — who volunteered for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — was detained at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport as he was trying to leave Cuba. “Their motivation isn’t real clear to us,” said a State Department official who asked not to be named.
Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Council of the Americas, said the Cuban government “clearly wants to force the hand of the Obama administration in some way. They may want to box the Obama administration in to prevent [U.S.-Cuba] relations from moving forward.”
The Castro regime may also want to bolster criticisms of a controversial U.S. Agency for International Development program that funded the DAI project under a $40 million grant. The USAID’s Cuba program aims to help dissidents and nongovernmental organizations in Cuba and has recently shifted its focus from academic and exile organization to groups, like DAI, that have experience undermining U.S. enemies.
DAI has a global reach and projects in dozens of nations including Afghanistan and Venezuela.
Michael Collins, a program associate at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank, said that DAI “received a lot of unwelcome attention” when it was accused of helping finance opposition groups involved in the failed 2002 coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — a staunch ally of the Castro regime.
“Other projects in Iraq and Afghanistan have led some pundits, such as whistleblower and former CIA agent Philip Agee, to believe that the organization is used as a front for the CIA. That is not to say that the DAI employee arrested is indisputably a spy, but the fact that American officials admit that he was distributing cell phones and computers, as well as other communications equipment that might have been restricted, will raise eyebrows regarding the motives his trip to Cuba.”
John McAuliff, executive director of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development, says there are a number of “oddities” about the official U.S. explanation of Gross’s activities in Cuba.
“A highly regarded international NGO called ORT is credited with the excellent and substantial computer program assisting the Jewish community in Cuba. Unless they are being funded by DAI/USAID, which seems unlikely, the story given out about Mr. Gross’s activities merits further investigation,” said McAuliff, cited in Progreso Weekly, a blog focused on Latin America. “Was he adding onto or hiding behind well-established credible work, or is this a cover story meant to confuse the debate over foreign assistance to dissidents?”
Cuba may have decided to arrest Gross is to use him as a bargaining chip to make a trade for the “Cuban Five” — intelligence agents serving jail terms for infiltrating exile organization and military bases in Florida. But a State Department official says “there’s no parallel” between the two.
The official, who asked not to be named, also said the U.S. government had kept Gross’s identity secret because he had not signed a privacy act waiver that would have allowed disclosures to the media. Gross rejected the waiver when officials from the U.S. Interests Section visited him in jail on Dec. 28.
The official said U.S. diplomats in Havana hope to visit the detained Americans again soon.
Moises Asis, a Miami resident who served as vice president of the B’nai B’rith lodge in Havana and principal of Cuba’s main Hebrew school until he fled the island in 1993, believes Gross is completely innocent..
“He was motivated to help Cubans in the same way people are now going to help in Haiti, and he fell into a trap,” Asis said. “I don’t believe it was [his wife’s] idea to keep silent. Maybe she was advised to keep a low profile until the U.S. government did everything possible to bring this man home.”
In fact, James Boomgard, DAI’s chief executive, insisted Gross has done nothing wrong. “It’s such an innocuous, innocent thing. I’m not a Cuba expert, but other people who understand the politics of this are puzzled as well,” Boomgard said.
Boomgard insisted that Gross never met with dissidents and that “there are no satellite phones involved.”
Gross is not the first American Jew to be arrested while doing humanitarian work in Cuba. Three years ago, Vermont humanitarian worker Rick Schwag was detained for eight days in a Havana prison for reasons still unknown to him.
“So many things the Cuban government does is arbitrary,” Schwag said in a phone interview from Lyndenville, Vt. “The Jews of Cuba are not a hotbed of dissent. If you wanted to foment a rebellion in Cuba, you wouldn’t go to the synagogue. The whole story doesn’t make sense.”
Schwag added: “I don’t see that it’s so terrible to hook up a synagogue with computers. And why is it so terrible if people in Cuba have satellite phones?”
DAI’s Boomgard described Gross as “a committed development professional with many years of experience providing humanitarian and development assistance worldwide.”
DAI declined to reveal the name of the family’s lawyer.
Robert Otto, who has worked in the international development field with Gross for 20 years, said his jailed colleague has had several USAID grants and contracts in the past to work on a number of issues — including dairy production and rural development.
Otto said Gross is no spy. “He’s not James Bond, he’s a development guy,” Otto said.
Asked if he thinks Gross is being tortured, Schwag said not physically. “He is possibly suffering some kind of psychological torture, in the same way I was threatened,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand that Cuba is a repressive system, so they do things that seem normal, which could get them in a lot of trouble. Is he a spy? I hope not, because he doesn’t seem like he’d be a very competent one.”