Washington Jewish Week / January 19, 2011
By Larry Luxner
The Obama administration’s Jan. 14 decision to dramatically expand opportunities for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba is feeding speculation that Maryland resident Alan Gross could be released from a Havana jail— maybe even within the next few weeks.
Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the New York-based Americas Society and a veteran Cuba watcher, said he has little doubt the Jewish prisoner — 62 years old and suffering from severe health problems — will be coming home very soon.
“I would venture a guess that Alan Gross will probably not be in a Cuban jail any longer than the end of this month, and probably will be out sooner than that,” Sabatini told WJW. “The White House couldn’t have made these announcements without a Cuban promise to release him.”
Sabatini and others noted the timing of that announcement, which was made late Friday afternoon, less than 48 hours after U.S. and Cuban officials met for migration talks in Havana. During her short trip to Cuba, Roberta Jacobson — the second most senior U.S. diplomat for Latin America — visited Gross at a military prison just outside Havana and pushed her Cuban counterparts repeatedly to let him go.
Top Cuban officials have accused Gross, a satellite communications specialist, of spying against their country, though he has yet to be charged with any crime. His family and the U.S. government have consistently argued that he was in Cuba to help the Jewish community connect to the Internet.
Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, agrees with Sabatini’s assessment.
“Whether the Cubans agreed to release him right away, I don’t know. But they must have given some indication that he will be released soon — maybe next month — because the U.S. has taken the position that they couldn’t really move significantly until there was some indication, and now they have done so.”
In its Jan. 14 announcement, the White House said regulations would be changed within the next two weeks to allow a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. citizens who may travel to Cuba for academic, religious or cultural reasons. For the first time, Americans will also be able to send up to $500 per quarter to Cuban citizens, even non-relatives.
Gross, whose company was contracted by Bethesda-based Development Associates Inc. to distribute communications technology in Cuba on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested more than 13 months ago as he attempted to fly out of Havana’s international airport.
Neither Gross’s wife, Judy, nor the family’s lawyer, Peter Kahn, could be reached for comment.
The Potomac resident has reportedly lost over 90 pounds in prison and is suffering from severe health problems. His daughter Shira, in her 20s, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after his detention, and Judy Gross, who visited her husband over the summer, wrote last year to President Raúl Castro expressing remorse for his activities on the island, which allegedly include distributing satellite phones to anti-government dissidents.
Smith, a well-known critic of current U.S. policy toward Cuba, said Gross had no business in Cuba to begin with.
“I think he should be charged and then released, with some sort of condemnation,” he told WJW. “He was not there simply to help Jewish groups connect to the Internet. They’re already connected; they’re one of the best-connected communities in Cuba, and Jewish leaders there haven’t said he was helping them. In fact, they’ve said quite the opposite, that they’ve never heard of him.”
Smith added that “while Gross may not have been doing anything that was dangerous, the fact is he was distributing this stuff without a license, and he was there on a tourist visa, which was not correct. So the Cubans would be well-advised to let him go, but with some sort of statement indicating that he was not there simply as an innocent tourist. - END -