CubaNews / September 2010
By Larry Luxner
For years, Alan Gross has played mandolin along with four other musicians during Rosh Hashana services at Am Kolel congregation. This year, the Maryland synagogue kept a seat empty to honor Gross, who spent the Jewish New Year in detention at Havana’s Carlos J. Finlay military hospital.
Gross’s apparent crime: distributing satellite phones and other forbidden electronic equipment to opponents of the Castro regime.
His Cuban captors haven’t yet charged the 60-year-old American with anything, and both the White House and the Bethesda, Md.-based company that contracted Gross still insist he was merely helping Cuba’s 1,500-member Jewish community access the Internet.
Yet two American journalists who recently met with Fidel Castro in Havana believe Cuba would like to see a resolution to his case. Fidel had personally invited Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg to interview him in mid-September. Julia Sweig, an expert on Cuba with the Council on Foreign Relations, accompanied Goldberg on the trip to Havana.
During their conversation, the 84-year-old revolutionary rebuked his ally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, for denying the Holocaust. He also defended Israel’s right to exist and expressed admiration for the Jewish people in the face of centuries of anti-semitism.
Asked in a Sep. 13 conference call if the two visitors had discussed the Alan Gross case with Fidel, Goldberg replied that they had not — but that the subject did come up in conversations with other senior Cuban officials.
“My impression is that the Cubans are looking for a way to end the problem and figure out a way to get him back to the United States,” Goldberg told CubaNews. “It’s plausible to assume that part of Fidel’s new approach toward Cuba’s Jewish community is a way of signaling that this isn’t about Jews.
In fact, he said, “Cuba’s position is that the arrest of this individual is not about his Jewishness at all, but about what he was doing.”
Sweig agreed, saying that it’s clear to her that the Gross case is “definitely top of mind” in Havana — but that the next step needs to come from the Obama administration.
“There does seem to be some process toward resolution of his case. But there seems to be little disposition in Washington to recognize that the USAID programs he was there for are seen as highly provocative,” Sweig told CubaNews.
“The $45 million regime change program is funded by USAID quite explicitly, without any operational control, and spent by private subcontractors to pay people like Gross who is truly well-meaning. I think he is seen as a casualty of that. The solution to Gross getting out of jail has to be worked out bilaterally.”
Gross’ wife, Judy, who visited him in mid-August and even spent a day with him on the beach, did not disclose the fact of her visit to CubaNews. Nor has she ever agreed to speak to us directly, though she did tell us via email that she conducts phone conversations with her husband two or three times a month.
“The last time I spoke with him was last week,” she said. “We talked for a few minutes, mostly about family issues. There’s a lot going on with our family right now.”
Due to mounting legal bills and the loss of her husband’s income, CubaNews has learned, Judy Gross recently sold the family home in suburban Potomac, Md., and moved to a rental apartment in Washington, D.C.
In June, Gross met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who issued a rare appeal to Jewish organizations, urging them to use their influence to press for the release of Alan Gross. At the time of his Dec. 4 arrest he was employed by Development Alternatives Inc., a subcontractor of the U.S. Agency for Inter-national Development (USAID).
“I was honored to meet with Secretary Clinton,” Judy Gross said. “I was also relieved to know Alan’s case is receiving such high-level attention. The State Department is working very hard to bring Alan home, and I am extremely grateful for their continued efforts.”
On Sep. 3, the State Department flatly denied reports that the Obama administration is considering swapping five convicted Cuban spies serving time in U.S. federal prison in exchange for Gross.
“The United States is NOT considering the release of any member of the Cuban Five in exchange for Alan Gross,” said spokesman Mark Toner in an email to El Nuevo Herald. Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and now senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, questioned why the USAID telecommunications expert visited Cuba five times on a tourist visa.
“I congratulate the Cubans for allowing the wife to visit,” he told CubaNews. “Alan Gross, it seems to me, did step over the line. What he was doing was not tourism by any means.”
Judy Gross refused to discuss the particulars of her husband’s case or exactly what he was doing in Cuba, and family lawyer Peter Kahn wouldn’t return calls seeking comment.
Yet Kahn’s Washington law firm, Williams & Connolly, is no stranger to high-profile cases.
Founded in 1967, it represented Iran-Contra defendant Oliver North, President Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley and President Clinton during his impeachment hearing.
In 2000, Williams & Connolly partner Greg Craig helped Juan Miguel Gonzalez in his successful bid to force U.S. courts to return his six-year-old son, Elian Gonzalez, to Cuba.
Kahn himself represented Israel in the Jonathan Pollard spy case during the 1980s, as well as the family of Yitzhak Rabin following the prime minister’s 1995 assassination.
Meanwhile, Judy Gross said the situation is getting only worse.
“Alan has lost about 80 pounds. He suffers from several medical conditions, some of which are old and some of which have developed since he was detained. He tries to stay strong both mentally and physically, but it is obviously very difficult,” she said. “Alan’s detention has been devastating for all of us. His absence from our lives has been just awful.”
Judy Gross says she’s gotten “tremendous support” from friends and Jewish leaders since her husband was arrested nearly 10 months ago at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport as he was about to leave the island.
“I know that Alan is in everyone’s prayers, especially during the [Jewish] holidays,” she said. “We desperately need him to come home, and we continue to hope that the Cuban authorities will release him as a sign of their good will.”
Rabbi David Schneyer, spiritual leader of Maryland’s Am Kolel, said he’s received a handwritten letter from Gross — who was recently given permission to use paper and writing instruments — but he declined to discuss its contents.
“Every Shabbat, I mention his name and pray for his release,” said the guitar-playing rabbi, noting Raúl Castro’s recent release of 52 political prisoners and his older brother Fidel’s unexpected warm words for the Jewish people and the state of Israel.
“It seems like Cuba is now trying to create a different picture of itself,” he said. “I hope Alan will be part of that picture.”