Waving placards and chanting “Bring Alan home,” nearly 200 protesters gathered in Lafayette Park early Tuesday afternoon to mark four years since Cuba imprisoned Alan Gross— and to urge President Obama to personally intervene in a case that has virtually frozen diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.
The rally was co-hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. It took place under a bright blue sky whose cheerfulness belied the solemnity of the occasion.
“My husband is an American citizen, holding an American passport, being held in violation of international law,” said Judy Gross, speaking from a podium with the White House behind her. “Alan has endured four long years in prison, which has put his health at risk, ruined his career and left our family without our husband, father and son. I’m asking the president to get personally involved in Alan’s case and bring him home.”
Gross, 64, was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, while attempting to leave Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport. A subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, he claimed he was merely trying to help connect Cuba’s tiny Jewish community to the Internet.
But the Castro regime charged him with subversion and sentenced him to 15 years in jail. During his confinement at Havana’s Villa Marista prison, the Potomac resident has lost 110 pounds and suffers “chronic pain, isolation and overwhelming emotional anguish,” according to Judy Gross, who received a loud round of applause after reading a lengthy letter from her husband.
“Please, Mr. President, assure my family and me that you will do whatever is necessary to get me out of this hell,” Gross wrote. “Despite my disappointment, I still have faith in the president and the American people. Only the president of the United States has the power to bring me home.”
Tuesday’s event attracted dozens of lawmakers, rabbis and various Jewish leaders.
Lisa Levine, the guitar-playing cantor of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, sang “Light One Candle” and “Not By Might” with Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer, while another rabbi — Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom-The National Synagogue — told the crowd how in 1943, the Cuban government saved his father from the Nazis by giving him safe haven after the United States had denied the refugee a visa.
“The U.S. then was on the wrong side of history,” Herzfeld said, urging Obama not to make another historic mistake. “Do not leave him [Gross] in the dungeons of Cuba. The people of Cuba will never be free as long as this man is held unjustly.”
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett chimed in with his own appeal.
“As a strong supporter of President Obama, I say it is time now for your personal commitment and action to bring Alan home,” he said. “Cuba is only 90 miles away from the coast of Florida, but for Alan, he might as well be on Mars. This is not just a 15-year sentence, this is a life sentence. Let’s act, Mr. President. Have the courage to do what’s right.”
The rally marks a change in tactics by the Gross family, whose weekly Monday vigils in front of the Cuban Interests Section on 16th Street have galvanized area Jews but have been largely ignored by the Cuban diplomats they’re meant to influence.
“I have absolutely nothing to say about this,” said Juan Jacomino, spokesman for the Cuban mission, when asked to comment on the imprisonment of Alan Gross. His boss, Jose Ramon Cabañas — Cuba’s top diplomat in the United States — couldn’t be reached for comment.
Ron Halber of the JCRC said he hasn’t met with Cabañas, but did talk with his predecessor, Jorge Bolaños, to no avail.
“This is a deliberate shift. We didn’t end up here [in Lafayette Park] by accident,” Halber told WJW. “We’ve been pounding the Cubans for four years explaining that what they’re doing is wrong and that they should release Alan. But that clearly is not going to happen. The administration needs to engage in a dialogue with the Cuban government to bring Alan home.”
Neither Halber nor any of the other speakers at Tuesday’s rally said a word about the four Cuban nationals still serving lengthy jail terms in the United States on espionage charges. Five Cubans were arrested in Florida in 1998 for spying on Miami-based Cuban exile groups and U.S. military installations. One of the five, Rene Hernandez, was paroled in 2011 and has since returned home. Another is up for parole in two months.
“The bottom line is that we’re not privy to the workings of the negotiations between the United States and Cuba,” Halber told WJW. “We’re all aware of the Cuban Four. Obviously, the Cubans are using Alan as a bargaining chip. The reality is, there are lots of bargaining chips, and it’s up to the president to decide what he wants to do. But there’s an American being held hostage 90 miles from our shores who was working in the service of his country.”
He added: “The American Jewish community is leading the hope for the administration to take action. It’s not a Jewish issue, but obviously, Alan worked in the Jewish community and has many ties to it, which is why we’ve been so involved. He’s a friend and a neighbor.”
Rabbi Schnitzer, who’s also president of the Cuba-America Jewish Mission, has been to the Caribbean island 12 times and was given permission to meet with Gross three times — though none of the meetings ever came to pass.
“This rally has one purpose: to get somebody in the White House to get interested in the case,” Schnitzer said. “Ninety-nine percent of Americans don’t care about the Cuban Five, but they do care about Alan Gross. This is not about getting the Cubans to change. They won’t. It’s up to the United States to change its position.”
Yet Domingo Amuchastegui, a Miami-based political analyst and former Cuban intelligence who defected in 1994, said it would be a mistake to portray the Maryland resident’s continued captivity as an act of hostility against Jews. In fact, he said, last week the country’s first vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, visited Havana’s largest synagogue to light the menorah for Chanukah, later calling it “an unforgettable evening.”
“Cuban authorities have repeatedly expressed publicly and privately their readiness to discuss the case of Gross as part of negotiations aimed at trading prisoners, as the United States did with Russia not long ago, or even with Japan during World War II,” said Amuchastegui. “It would be very easy for the U.S. to strike a deal, but they don’t want to jeopardize Florida’s 29 electoral votes and the special congressional muscle of seven Cuban-American lawmakers and their powerful political machine.”
Tracey Eaton, former Havana correspondent for the Dallas Morning News who now has a blog on Cuba, agrees with Amuchastegui.
He says Obama does have the power to bring the prisoner home — but that would mean negotiating with the Castro regime, thereby risking the wrath of powerful Cuban-American lawmakers like Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) who oppose any such talks.
“It’s a political mess, and I’m not convinced Obama is ready to wade into it,” said Eaton. “It’s unclear what U.S. authorities have done behind the scenes to try to secure Gross’ freedom. Cuban officials, meanwhile, have little incentive to release Gross unless the U.S. government somehow backs off efforts to force Raul Castro from power or frees what’s left of the Cuban Five — and I don’t see signs of that happening anytime soon.”