Backstory: After 5 years, Alan Gross was losing hope in Cuban prison

Published Dec. 17, 2014

Editors Note: The Miami Herald published this piece on Alan Gross on Nov. 30.

As the fifth anniversary of the arrest and imprisonment of U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor Alan Gross in Cuba approaches, he has received recent visits from his lawyer and two senators but refuses to see U.S. diplomats in Havana.

It's a reflection of his frustration with the U.S. government and its efforts to win his freedom. Since his arrest on Dec. 3, 2009, for smuggling satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of USAID's pro-democracy programs, Gross has grown increasingly despondent and his wife Judy has said she worries that he'll "do something drastic" if he isn't released soon.

"President Obama needs to bring Alan home now,'' said Scott Gilbert, Gross' lawyer.

A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. is trying to do that: "We continue to use every possible diplomatic channel to press for Mr. Gross' release, repeatedly, both publicly and privately. We have also enlisted governments around the world and prominent figures to press for Mr. Gross' release."

Just before he turned 65 last May 2, Gross — who is serving his 15-year sentence at the Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in Havana — announced "it will be my last birthday here." When his wife visited in June, he said his goodbyes.

"We must remember that Alan was in Cuba serving the U.S. government [USAID is part of the State Department]," said Gilbert, a Washington lawyer who visited Gross in Havana last week. "Alan is about to give up, and we are running out of time."

When Peter Kornbluh, a National Security Archive analyst, visited Gross in prison last December he found that the development specialist's physical condition seemed improved from a four-hour visit he had with him in November 2012, but that his mental state had deteriorated.

Gross had gained back 23 of the 110 pounds he had lost and showed the muscles he was developing with daily exercises. When Kornbluh asked him if he was bulking up in preparation for a hunger strike, Gross instead indicated a door separating their meeting room from the rest of the prison. "Flimsy," he noted.

Kornbluh said that when he mentioned there were large, well-armed guards on the other side, Gross responded: "I'm not afraid of anyone and God help the person who challenges that. I'm a ticking time bomb…. Tick, tick, tick."

Gross did, in fact, stage a nine-day hunger strike in April to protest the lack of progress toward his release and grew even more depressed after his mother, 92-year-old Evelyn Gross, died of cancer in June. The Cuban government refused furlough requests from Gross during her illness and to attend her funeral.

In the five years since Gross was arrested on his fifth trip to Cuba, the wedge between his family and the U.S. government has grown.

In a $60-million lawsuit filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, the Grosses blamed the U.S. government and Development Alternatives Inc., the Maryland-based international development firm that subcontracted the USAID project to Gross, for failing to adequately train and prepare him for the risky situation he would face in Cuba.

In a memo submitted to DAI after his third trip to the island, for example, he outlined his mounting concern: "This is very risky business in no uncertain terms. Provincial authorities are apparently very strict when it comes to unauthorized use of radio frequencies.... Detection usually means confiscation of equipment and arrest of users." DAI, according to the suit, ignored Gross' worries.

A judge dismissed the negligence case, saying the U.S. government is immune from any claim arising in a foreign country, and earlier this month the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the dismissal. DAI settled with the Gross family for an undisclosed sum.

But Gilbert said the Grosses' legal fight isn't over. He intends to petition the Supreme Court for review of the case.

The State Department has described Gross' activities in Cuba as an effort to bring Internet access to the Jewish community and insists the program wasn't covert but rather "discreet."

But the Cuban government said Gross wasn't prosecuted for bringing Internet access to Jewish communities in Havana, Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba, which already were connected to the Internet before Gross made his visits.

In a document defending their treatment of Gross, the Cubans said he was convicted for "illegally and covertly introducing into Cuba communication equipment" meant only for military purposes and to create clandestine networks for the transmission and reception of data for a program aimed at "subverting Cuba's constitutional order."

Documents made public during the Grosses' federal lawsuit also provide details about the pilot project that Gross called Para la Isla (For the Island). After making contact with the three Jewish communities and setting up wireless networks, a proposal for a $332,334 expansion of the project called for reaching three more target groups and providing them with "Telco-In-a-Bag."

Such bags were to be filled with a Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) modem, four SIM cards, four iPods, a "discreet BGAN SIM card," four unlocked smartphones, a wireless router, MacBook, cables for TV hookup, flash drives and other equipment that would allow a global Internet satellite link to make phone calls and send emails. The discreet SIM Cards, Gross indicated, would make it difficult to track and locate signals.

The proposal notes that if BGAN usage for Internet access were discovered by Cuban authorities, it would be "catastrophic."

Gross was beginning the next phase of the project when he was arrested.

These days he spends his time in a 10-by-12-foot cell with two other prisoners. There is a small meeting room attached. A small table was laid out with coffee and sweets both times Kornbluh visited.

But lately Gross has "been adamant about not wanting to see most people," said a family spokesman. Personnel from the U.S. Interests Section used to visit monthly, but now Gross rebuffs those visits.

He did, however, see Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, a few weeks ago during their trip to the island.

The senators, who both are critical of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, said there wasn't any indication that his release was imminent. But at a news conference , Flake said, "I do feel we are closer there. One, because of what Alan Gross has said himself — this is going to end one way or another. We have gone on five years and any benefit the Cuban government may have seen has to have evaporated."

Flake said another positive was that "there won't be any more covert programs run out of AID anymore." He was referring to an Associated Press report that USAID was preparing internal rules that would, in effect, end its undercover work — such as the program Gross was engaged in and another that aimed to set up a secretive Twitter-like social network to encourage young Cuban dissidents — in hostile countries.

Gross' case, which has thwarted improvement in the difficult U.S.-Cuba relationship, is also complicated by its intersection with another politically and emotionally charged case — that of five Cubans convicted in 2001 of infiltrating South Florida military installations and spying on the exile community.

Prosecutors linked their intelligence activities to the Feb. 24, 1996, shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes as they neared island air space, resulting in the deaths of four exile pilots.

The Brothers, an exile group that searched the Florida Straits for overdue rafters, also had repeatedly flown into Cuban airspace in the past, dropping leaflets, and, once, medallions that said "Brothers not Comrades" over Cuba.

The Cuban agents were part of a larger group sent to Miami in the 1990s as Havana grew increasingly testy over a series of hotel bombings linked to exiles and the airspace incursions. The five were convicted of various conspiracy-related and espionage charges and sentenced to lengthy terms in federal prison.

While the U.S. government has repeatedly called for the immediate, humanitarian release of Gross, the Cuban government has said that the United States can't make such a unilateral demand without taking into consideration humanitarian concerns for the agents, known as the Cuban Five.

In the time Gross has been in jail,, the Cuban Five — who have been elevated to hero status in Cuba — have become the Cuban Three.

Two of the Cuban spies — René González, who was released in 2011 and spent a year on probation in the United States, and Fernando González, who was released in February after serving 15 years — are now back in Cuba.

The next two Cubans are scheduled for release in 2017 and 2024, but Gerardo Hernández, who was also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, is serving two life sentences and isn't eligible for parole.

The United States has said many times it is not considering release of any of the Cubans in exchange for Gross because the USAID subcontractor isn't a spy and can't be part of a spy-for-spy swap.

Last week a State Department spokesperson explained: "We've always made it clear that there's no equivalence between an international development worker imprisoned... for doing nothing more than helping Cuban citizens gain access to the Internet, and convicted Cuban intelligence agents."

But there is, in fact, historical precedent for non-equivalent swaps. Twice before there have been these non-trade trades couched as separate, dual humanitarian gestures.

In their new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, William LeoGrande and Kornbluh outline a tricky negotiation during the Carter administration to win release of four CIA agents held in Havana.

Fidel Castro at first balked, saying the agents had conspired to overthrow the government and take the lives of Cuban leaders and compared them to four Puerto Rican nationalists jailed in the United States for opening fire from the visitors' gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954, wounding five congressmen, and for the attempted assassination of President Harry Truman in 1950.

Castro, long sympathetic to the cause of Puerto Rican independence, suggested an exchange. But the United States didn't want an explicit quid pro quo, the book said. Months passed but on Sept. 6, 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced clemency for the Puerto Ricans and 11 days later Castro ordered the release of the four CIA agents in a "reciprocal humanitarian gesture."

"We never gave up trying to get our spies out," said Kornbluh. "If [Gross] were a real CIA guy, the CIA would be pushing for his release."

In 1963, there were also negotiations for release of prisoners held by both sides. They culminated in the same day release of 27 U.S. citizens (including three CIA agents) arrested as spies and saboteurs in Cuba, and four Cubans jailed in the U.S. One of those Cubans had been convicted in the accidental shooting of a nine-year-old girl during a 1960 clash with anti-Castro Cubans. The others were charged with plotting sabotage in New York.

They were not defined as prisoner swaps but rather mutual acts of clemency, according to the book.

Kornbluh and LeoGrande said these two precedents might suggest a way forward in winning Gross' release. "If the United States is serious about getting Gross out, then it will have to have a more flexible position," said LeoGrande, an American University government professor who specializes in Latin America.

But for South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, this is no time to show flexibility toward the Cuban government.

Alan Gross "should have never been jailed and should be released unconditionally," she said in a statement. "A cavalcade of diplomats, members of Congress and others have visited Gross in prison to no avail. Additionally, the Obama administration eased sanctions in 2011 with no benefit for Gross."

Now, she said, it is time for the administration to "tighten sanctions to punish the regime's criminal act and continue to press for Gross' release."

Meanwhile, Gross' family and his supporters keep up the steady drumbeat for his release despite the lack of progress. "We like to remain hopeful,'' said the family spokesman.

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