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Family Anxious Over Relative Imprisoned in Havana


Larry Luxner, Jewish Exponent, March 11, 2010

Alan Gross with his wife, Judy, at Jerusalem's Western Wall in the spring of 2005
Photo courtesy of the Gross family

The two-story house looks like any other in this upscale Washington suburb -- 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.

For more than three months now, he has been locked up in Havana's Villa Marista maximum-security jail, his fate uncertain.

Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, has publicly accused the Jewish detainee of working for U.S. "secret services," made up of what he called "agents, torturers and spies."

Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba's foreign minister, said that Gross remains under investigation, even though he hasn't yet been formally charged with anything.

"In any place in the world, what has been attributed to what you call the American contractors would be a serious crime," Rodriguez told reporters on Jan. 12.

Gross, 60, heads the Joint Business Development Center LLC, a Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit that according to its Web site (which was pulled shortly after his name became a matter of public record) "provides practical 21st-century solutions to business, government, associations and humanitarian aid organizations globally."

He was detained Dec. 4 at Havana's airport. His organization was subcontracting for Development Alternatives Inc., which had won a bid for the Cuba contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

According to his family and his employer, he was helping Cuba's tiny Jewish community access the Internet so its members could communicate with each other and with their exiled families in South Florida and elsewhere.

Cuba's once-thriving Jewish community was substantially depleted after Fidel Castro's 1959 rise to power. Much of the community moved to Miami. Israel struck a deal with Cuba in the late 1990s that allowed the emigration of all but an estimated 600 to 1,000 Jews that remain.

In a statement, the State Department said that Gross was working on "a program designed to play a positive constructive role in Cuban society and governance by helping Cuban citizens to gain access they seek to information readily available to citizens elsewhere in the world." Such projects are banned there.

Until a few weeks ago, the detainee's wife, Judy, would not publicly discuss her husband's detention. Likewise, officials at the Cuban Interests Section -- the regime's equivalent of a Washington embassy -- refused all comment on the case.

But now the family, including a first cousin Wynnewood, has launched a public campaign to help hasten his release.

"Our two daughters and I miss Alan terribly. We need him home immediately," she said via e-mail, noting that he's lost 52 pounds in the last three months. "We are very concerned that his health has recently deteriorated. I am increasingly worried about the psychological trauma he might suffer due to his imprisonment."

She also wrote that Gross' mother's health has declined significantly, and "we are afraid that something might happen to her before Alan comes home."

'If He's a Spy, Prove It'

Ben Gross, of Wynnewood, is the prisoner's first cousin. Their fathers -- both of whom worked in the window-cleaning business in New York -- were brothers.

"He's got two daughters, 24 and 20, and they don't know if their father is coming back," said Gross, a business consultant for Philadelphia-area hospitals. "Alan is a social worker by background, and spent an entire career in developing countries trying to work with local people. The Cubans have detained him for no apparent reason. If he's a spy, prove it."

Ben Gross has already written letters to Pennsylvania's two U.S. senators, Democrats Arlen Specter and Robert P. Casey Jr., as well as his local congressman, Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach, asking them to put pressure on the State Department to push for his cousin's release. Other members of Congress have already pressed the case with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Alan Gross, who from 1981 to 1985 served as director of commerce at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, had traveled to Cuba several times, distributing humanitarian aid and cell phones to political dissidents under a contract with the Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI.

Rabbi David Shneyer of Congregation Am Kolel, a Jewish Renewal community in Rockville, Md., is one of the few rabbis who has publicly lobbied for lifting U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba. He described Gross as "a good person who only wanted to help Cuban Jews."

A while back, said Shneyer, Gross "encouraged our community to get a license to visit Cuba as a religious organization" -- which resulted in two Am Kolel humanitarian trips to the island, in 2006 and 2008.

Ben Gross said that he last saw his cousin this past fall.

"Judy and Alan were at my daughter's wedding on Oct. 3 of last year," Gross said. "I asked Alan what he was doing these days. He said to me, 'Ben, I go to Cuba on a government contract, distributing cell phones and laptops to the Jewish community so they can communicate. And that's all I can tell you.' He did not want to elaborate on what he was doing in Cuba."

Considering his company's expertise in establishing VSAT installations in such remote locales as Afghanistan, Armenia, Iraq and Kuwait, speculation has focused on the possibility that Gross was handing out satellite phones to dissidents -- an activity that would clearly infuriate the Castro government.

At any rate, the Castro regime has made clear that it wants an end to the USAID "transition to democracy" programs that fund contractors like DAI.

The USAID's Cuba program aims to help dissidents and nongovernmental organizations in Cuba, and has recently shifted its focus from academic and exile organizations to DAI and other groups with experience in nations under hostile regimes.

Michael Collins, a program associate at the Center for International Policy in Washington, 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 whistle-blower and former CIA agent Philip Agee, to believe that the organization is used as a front for the CIA.

Some analysts suggest that Cuba may have arrested Gross to use him as a bargaining chip to make a trade for the "Cuban Five" -- intelligence agents in jail for infiltrating exile organizations and military bases in Florida. But a State Department official said that "there's no parallel" between the two.

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said that Cuba's objective is to destroy USAID's programs for democracy in Cuba.

Said Suchlicki: "They were waiting for an American to arrest. They had plenty of Cuban-American exiles doing the same thing, but they wanted an American -- so they decided to focus on this guy. It's got nothing to do with him being Jewish."

He pointed out that under Cuban law, even giving a publication to a Cuban citizen is punishable by three years in jail.

Ben Gross said that he wonders sometimes what his cousin was thinking. "Alan is an intelligent man. He should have been aware of all this. Why would he jeopardize his life and his family? Why would he do it?"

Moisis 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, said that he thinks 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," said Asis.

DAI executive James Boomgard also insisted that 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."

Gross is not the first American Jew to be arrested doing humanitarian work in Cuba. Three years ago, Rick Schwag was detained for eight days in a Havana prison for reasons still unknown.

"So many things the Cuban government does is arbitrary," Schwag said in a phone interview from his home in Vermont. "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."

Asked if he thinks Gross is being tortured, Schwag said probably not physically: "He is possibly suffering some kind of psychological torture, in the same way I was threatened."

"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," acknowledged Schwag. "Is he a spy? I hope not, because he doesn't seem like he'd be a very competent one."