CubaNews / April 2011
By Larry Luxner
With former President Jimmy Carter visiting Havana’s Jewish community as this issue of CubaNews went to press, speculation is growing that Alan Gross — despite the 15-year jail sentence imposed on him Mar. 12 by a Cuban court — could be released on humanitarian grounds in a matter of weeks or even days.
There’s also talk the Gross family may file a lawsuit against Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc. for having sent the 61-year-old telecom expert to Cuba in the first place.
During his Havana trial, Gross accused DAI of “having endangered him and ruining the lives and economy of his family,” according to a court statement read on Cuban state TV.
Gross was arrested in December 2009 while on a USAID-backed project to spread democracy in Cuba. Both his wife Judy and the U.S. government insisted he went there to help the island’s 1,500-member Jewish community connect to the Internet.
But the regime accused him of setting up an illegal satellite communications network and “crimes against the integrity of the state.”
DAI occupies the five top floors of a modern office building along Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, Md., where it has 300 employees. Federal records show that from 2000 and 2009, the company won more than $2.7 billion in USAID contracts around the world, for projects in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Honduras to the Philippines.
DAI President James Boomgard couldn’t be reached for comment; nor could Judy Gross. And while spokesman Steven O’Connor wouldn’t say whether the Gross family has filed a lawsuit against his firm, he did express hope the case would be resolved soon.
“We’re all too aware of the ordeal Alan has been through over the past 16 months and we have nothing but sympathy and respect for him and his family,” he told CubaNews.
“We’re also aware of various misconceptions that have crept into media coverage of the case. While we would like to address these issues, now is not the time. Right now, our priorities are to say nothing that might jeopardize Alan’s standing in what remains a highly sensitive legal and political situation, and to keep the focus on efforts to bring Alan home.”
The continued incarceration of Gross in a Havana military hospital has received worldwide media attention because of the damage it has done to U.S.-Cuba relations. It’s also spurred the Conference of Presi-dents of Major American Jewish Organiz-tions — which speaks for 51 Jewish groups — to appeal directly to President Raúl Castro to release Gross for time already served.
Conference of Presidents Chairman Alan Solow and the group’s executive vice-chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, told Castro in a letter that “Mr. Gross has lived his life following the Jewish teachings of tikkun olam [repairing the world] as demonstrated by the multiple huma-nitarian projects he has developed around the world — from the Middle East to Latin America. His work has touched and improved the lives of thousands of people. If his work had any political implications, this was something he did not, or could not, appreciate.”
The Gross family’s attorney, Peter Kahn, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly LLP, did not return phone calls.
But in a statement, Kahn — who represented Israel during the 1987 Jonathan Pollard spy case — said: “Alan’s health continues to deteriorate as a result of his dramatic weight loss, other physical ailments and the extreme mental stress and anguish he continues to endure.
“The recent lung cancer diagnosis of his elderly mother and his 26-year-old daughter’s ongoing recovery from a double mastectomy have created an even more urgent need for Alan to be reunited with his family.”
Gross cited his daughter’s illness in a handwritten letter he wrote in August to a Maryland friend. He was lodged in Havana’s Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital at the time.
“I am basically OK and my captors have been making improvements in conditions here for the last several months,” said the letter, scrawled on a yellow legal pad. “Naturally, I am becoming increasingly anxious to come home, especially after learning that my older daughter is now battling breast cancer. Timing is never good for this kind of battle.”
Gross also discussed a pending business project involving Palestinian-Israeli trade that he was anxious to continue pursuing once he gained his freedom. “Please let me know through Judy if I should look forward to jumping back into this matter with you upon my release,” he told his friend. “Between my legal costs plus supplementing Shira’s medical insurance, I will definitely need to generate revenue ASAP.”
Interestingly, Gross’s Cuban-appointed lawyer at his trial was Nuris Piñero Sierra, who also represents the families of five Cuban intelligence agents being held in U.S. prisons for having spied against the United States.
Miami lawyer Tim Ashby, a well-known Cuba consultant who has followed the Gross case carefully, said he doubts the Obama administration would agree to release the so-called “Cuban 5” in exchange for Gross — though other deals may be in the works.
“The Cuban government absolutely does not view him as an evil agent of the CIA. He was portrayed during the trial as a victim, not as an intelligence operative,” said Ashby.
“I’m almost positive that Alan and Judy Gross would say nice things about the Cuban government once he gets out,” Ashby said.
“He does believe he was used, and he’ll say nasty things about USAID and that he was treated well by the Cubans. That could be part of a deal. I’ve heard from a number of sources that he will be released in a matter of months.”
Ashby says it’s “very likely” that the Gross family could sue DAI even while the prisoner — who’s appealing his sentence to Cuba’s Supreme Court — remains incarcerated.
“It wouldn’t hurt him, not in the least. In fact it could actually help him, because it would further his case in that Gross was an unwilling dupe,” said Ashby. “It could have gone extremely badly. If he were a younger man, they could have put him in prison and thrown away the key. But that’s not going to happen.”